Centre for Research on GlobalisationCentre de recherche sur la mondialisation
The USA PATRIOT Act, hastily passed by Congress with almost no debate, broadened police powers immensely -- and has put committed librarians onto the frontlines of Americans' perennial effort to protect the civil liberties guaranteed by our Constitution.
Soon after the president signed the Orwellian-sounding ''Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act,'' the FBI and other law enforcement agencies began visiting libraries to look at patrons' check-out records, Internet usage, visit frequency, etc. It was the first such sweep since the 1970s, when such library database searches were ended because of abuses.
Because a gag order forbids library workers contacted by law enforcement from mentioning it to anybody but a lawyer, we can't be sure exactly how and how often this is happening. However, a University of Illinois survey found that in January and February alone, 85 of 1,020 randomly selected public libraries admitted that law enforcement officers had demanded information about patrons.
To protect patrons' privacy, conscientious librarians have been forced to reevaluate all the information they store. This creates worker stress, as well as wasting limited time and money better spent providing services.
Also disturbing is the ''trolling'' nature of the searches, and the ease with which warrants can be granted. A person needn't be suspected of committing a crime to have their movements monitored - a judge anywhere in the U.S. must simply deem the information ''relevant'' to an open investigation. Once law enforcement gains access to a library's entire records, agents are free to browse.
This is an outrageous attack on our civil liberties. If tolerated by the American people, we can only expect to see further invasions of our privacy by overzealous investigators exploiting unconstitutional legal loopholes.
Call to action
Urge Attorney General John Ashcroft to halt all law enforcement incursions into library records until their constitutionality can be determined by the courts. Deadline: Ongoing
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