Who's Reading over Your Shoulder? (Civil Liberties Watch)

By Gelsey, Zara | The Humanist, September-October 2002 | Go to article overview

Who's Reading over Your Shoulder? (Civil Liberties Watch)


Gelsey, Zara, The Humanist


I hate the feeling of someone reading over my shoulder. Not only is it superficially distracting, but it often affects how I respond to the text. Being conscious of being watched inhibits my thinking because I find myself reading through my watcher's eyes. It makes me suddenly self-conscious, wondering if the observer is making faulty suppositions about me based on the material I'm reading. The bored businessperson next to me on the train isn't a big deal, but the thought of the FBI peering over my shoulder in the public library definitely puts me on edge.

Ever since the U.S.A. PATRIOT Act was passed by Congress in October 2001, the FBI has been reading over our shoulders by visiting libraries across the country to demand library patrons' reading records and other files. Under the PATRIOT Act, the FBI doesn't have to demonstrate "probable cause" of criminal activity to request records; in fact, the so-called search warrant is issued by a secret court. Once granted, it entitles the FBI to procure any library records pertaining to book circulation, Internet use, or patron registration. Librarians can even be compelled to cooperate with the FBI in monitoring Internet usage.

This sort of secrecy is not only chilling, it is ripe for potential abuse. A similar Cold War version of library monitoring was called the Library Awareness Program, through which FBI agents specifically targeted Soviet and eastern European nationals. The American Library Association (ALA) effectively fought the LAP then and is now standing up to the PATRIOT Act searches. ALA policy on governmental intimidation, established in 1981, unequivocally opposes "the use of any governmental prerogative which leads to the intimidation of the individual or the citizenry from the exercise of free expression." The ALA sees the new FBI policy for what it is: blatant intimidation of patrons.

But beyond FBI intimidation tactics, the new library surveillance program is bound to backfire. What one reads does say something about one's interests--but it may say different things to different people. If one only sees a few details about someone else's life, their actions can easily be contorted to fit the observer's version of reality.

This is a classic sitcom plot line: an observer misconstrues a sequence of unrelated details and then has a skewed perception of the protagonist. Perhaps the observer reads a personal letter that is lying on a coffee table but doesn't realize it is part of a novel-in-progress. Based on this bit of information, the observer constructs conclusions, with a succession of trivial actions seemingly reinforcing the observer's misperceptions, all to the delight of the omniscient audience.

By seeking to discover what books certain people are reading, the FBI falls right into the role of the ill-informed observer in a similar plot line being played out in libraries across the country. Only it's not so delightful when the FBI concludes you're a terrorist because you're doing research at your local library for an article on suicide bombings and have amassed a circulation record it deems suspicious. A person who reads a book intending to make a bomb could be a suspect--as could anyone researching terrorist bombings in order to prevent them.

The same knowledge can be used for "good" or "evil." The fateful tree in the Garden of Eden represented the knowledge of good and evil--opposing values intertwined on one tree. The FBI can't possibly know the intent of knowledge harvested from books, and affording the agency the opportunity to pretend it can is incredibly dangerous. Just as a person wearing rose-colored glasses sees everything rosy, so the FBI is predisposed to find suspicious facts. If the FBI wants to scour libraries looking for "suspicious" reading records, it's going to find them--but its perception is inherently skewed by its intent.

I view reading as access to information; the FBI views it as an indictment.

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