Will You Stand for Privacy?

A message from ALA President Barbara Stripling

July 11, 2013

The following message was sent to all ALA members this morning from ALA President Barbara Stripling:

Presidential Update on National Security Leak

In early June, reports of the National Security Agency’s secret practices rang loudly around the world. News reports detailed PRISM, the US government surveillance program that obtains the internet records from 10 US companies: Verizon, Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, PalTalk, AOL, Skype, YouTube, and Apple. It appears that phone records, emails, photos, and social networking activities have been collected and cataloged by the FBI and the NSA over the last seven years.

ALA is saddened by recent news that the government has obtained vast amounts of personal information and electronic communications of millions of innocent people. The extent of the personal information received by the government is very troubling. Those of you who have been long-time members of ALA know that we have always argued that provisions in the USA Patriot Act encroach on the privacy expectations of library users. Worse, the surveillance law erodes our basic First Amendment rights, all while undermining the very fabric of our democracy.

When we spoke out in 2001 against the passage of the Patriot Act, we were concerned about Section 215, a provision of the law that allowed the government powers to obtain “business records and other tangible things” from suspected terrorists. We were fearful that the government would come into libraries without warning and take library records of individual patrons without reasonable suspicion. Libraries were one of the first groups to publicly oppose the bill, and many legislators and privacy experts have noted that Congress would not have understood the chilling impact on privacy if librarians had not brought it to the nation’s attention. Librarians were so vocal in their opposition to the law that Section 215 was called the “library provision.” We could not have imagined then what is happening today. Today, in spite of the leak allegations, the government continues to use the “library provision” to vacuum up private communication records of Americans on a massive scale.

Even the most cynical among us could not have predicted that the Obama Administration—an administration that campaigned on the promise of greater government transparency and openness—would allow a massive surveillance program to infringe upon the basic civil liberties of innocent, unsuspecting people. We understand the responsibility of the government to investigate terrorism and other harmful acts. But the need to protect the public does not mean that Americans have to relinquish their Fourth Amendment privacy rights in the process. ALA has already joined other civil liberties groups to call for more legal review, judicial oversight, transparency, and public accountability. Our country needs to find the right balance.

We need to restore the balance between individual rights and terrorism prevention, and libraries are one of the few trusted American institutions that can lead true public engagement on our nation’s surveillance laws and procedures. Libraries have the tools, resources, and leaders that can teach Americans about their First Amendment privacy rights and help our communities discuss ways to improve the balance between First Amendment rights and government surveillance activities. And patrons are ready to learn about their privacy rights from their libraries.

Next steps: Be a leader at your library

We are calling on librarians to facilitate local public dialogues and educational sessions on government surveillance and transparency. To help libraries convene privacy forums and moderate public conversations, ALA is launching ALA Liberty, a new privacy website that contains tools that librarians can use to host educational sessions and public forums that help Americans understand their First and Fourth Amendment rights.

The website contains the following resources:

Guide for Moderators (PDF file)
This document outlines the steps and process for moderators to convene a forum on privacy in their community. Libraries are a perfect location for this form of civic engagement. Librarians may choose to serve as moderators or find other individuals in the community to fill the moderator’s role. This PDF contains the information necessary for moderators of a forum on privacy.

Guide for Participants (PDF file)
Distribute this document to individuals participating in a library-hosted community discussion on privacy. It provides an overview of the deliberative process and outlines the privacy issues to be considered.

Checklist for Convening a Forum on Privacy (PDF file)
This document outlines the steps needed to host a successful forum on privacy in your library.

Choose Privacy Week resources
This offers videos that can be used for programming on surveillance. The site includes guest blogs from national privacy advocates and ALA T-shirts and posters.

If you have any questions about the privacy toolkit, contact Jazzy Wright, press officer for the ALA Washington Office at jwright@alawash.org or 202-628-8410.

Barbara Stripling
ALA President


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