Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Feds may still snoop library files Under Obama

I know, I know, today is a day about celebrating change and the end of a truly tragic era. And of course, there are few rights and protections that were more fundamentally assaulted in the past 8 years than that of privacy.

But, as much as I'd love to post some "good news" on the privacy front, alas, I found this disturbing article in the San Francisco Chronicle. As the title of this post suggests, apparently the Obama administration supports continuing the practice of snooping in our library records...in order to keep us safe of course!

Forgive me if I don't find the new Attorney General's "we're doing it to fight terrorism" argument convincing.

The Chronicle reports:

Holder said he realizes the provision has been controversial and he will seek more information from department staff before making a final decision, if confirmed as attorney general. He didn't elaborate on his support for the law, but said at another point in the hearing that his top priority would be to protect Americans from terrorism, using "every available tactic ... within the letter and spirit of the Constitution."


The provision Holder wants Congress to renew, known as Section 215, "gives the government far too much power to conduct fishing expeditions in the records of bookstore customers and library patrons," Finan said. "We never expected that the change of administration would mean we had any less of a fight on our hands."

Organizations of librarians and booksellers have denounced the law as an assault on reader privacy. Some libraries have posted signs warning patrons that their records are subject to government inspection, and many librarians now destroy files on borrowers who have returned their books.


Finan said the American Booksellers Association, which represents 2,000 independent bookstores, and allied groups of librarians, publishers and writers will instead try to soften the law along the lines of legislation that Obama supported in the Senate last year.

Carried by Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., the bill would have allowed agents to obtain records of customers and library patrons only if they were actually suspected of terrorism, and would have authorized court challenges by keepers of the records.

Thanks to that last paragraph, and the fact that its a bill authored by Russ Feingold, a longtime privacy champion, I feel somewhat confident that perhaps the news isn't quite as bad as the article's headline suggests. A greater question will be whether Obama chooses to use his enormous political capital on a bill like this - which would essentially assure its passage - or whether he views taking high profile positions on issues like this as not being politically expedient enough?

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