Who’s reading over your shoulder?

Director of communications for the Center for Cognitive Liberty & Ethics

Since the USA Patriot Act was passed in October 2001, the FBI has been visiting America’s libraries to demand library patrons’ reading records and other files. Under the Act, the FBI doesn’t have to demonstrate “probable cause” of criminal activity to request records. In fact, a secret court issues the so-called “search warrant.” Once granted, the warrant entitles the FBI to procure any library records pertaining to book circulation, Internet use or patron registration, and librarians are barred by law from disclosing the FBI’s presence. This sort of secrecy is not only chilling, but also is ripe for potential abuse.

What you read does say something about your interests, but it may say different things to different people. A few isolated details about someone else’s life can be contorted easily to fit an observer’s version of reality. If the FBI scours libraries looking for “suspicious” reading records, it will find them, but the FBI’s perception inherently is skewed by its intent.

I view reading as access to information; the FBI views it as an indictment. FBI officials fear domestic suicide bombings, so reading lists are examined, and suddenly an innocent researcher working on an article is now a suspect. In the worst-case scenario, details that seemingly support suspicious are dragged from one’s past. In the best-case scenario, the FBI just wasted valuable time tracking a fictional suspect created from a list of books. FBI officials can’t possibly know the intent of knowledge harvested from books, and affording them the opportunity to pretend they can is incredibly dangerous.

The FBI may never visit your library, but this surveillance program is bound to have negative effects on seekers of knowledge who rely on the public library system. The feeling of being monitored inhibits intellectual freedom. It’s implied that you’d better watch what you read because they’ll be watching. Intimidating readers in such a manner is, ultimately, controlling what we read and how we think.

Freedom of thought and the freedom to read are intertwined. Monitoring library records is not as direct as banning books, but it is bound to cause self-censorship among readers. The government cannot ban books, so instead it will make suspects out of readers. The FBI is merely circumventing the First Amendment by threatening readers rather than prohibiting what they read. As Americans who cherish our freedom, we seriously should consider whether this is a compromise we are willing to make.