What’s next for surveillance reform?

Photo by vpickering via flickr.

Photo by vpickering via flickr.

Library advocates can expect 2014 to be a year full of privacy and surveillance issues. The potential for reform of our country’s surveillance laws and programs is serious business and will take dedicated association and grassroots resources to contribute to reform efforts.

As noted in the first part of our blog series on surveillance, one of the considerations for the American Library Association (ALA) is how can our association best contribute to reform efforts and how do these issues relate to the other legislative and policy priorities for ALA? What separates the current surveillance situation than previous years when little or no reform came to fruition? Equally important: Are ALA members, and other library supporters, willing to do the heavy grassroots lifting to make an impact?

Will 2014 be any different?

First: The public knows now what we couldn’t know before: We have confirmation about the tremendous breadth and degree of National Security Agency (NSA) surveillance programs because of the Edward Snowden revelations. The NSA surveillance programs were secret. Many other law enforcement activities weren’t public knowledge because the U.S.A. PATRIOT Act and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) include have standing gag order provisions, meaning that no individual or institution could reveal that they had received a FISA or PATRIOT Act subpoena/order or national security letter. Such approaches by law enforcement permanently kept government information secret.

The “Connecticut Four” library consortium case was the first, and one of only a few, examples of a successful court-ordered lift to a gag order inherent to these laws. This permitted the four librarians involved to speak publicly about the government’s attempt to search the consortium’s patron internet records.

Second: All three branches of the federal government are now examining government surveillance activities. Congress has over two dozen bills introduced; there are two contradicting judicial decisions, not just by the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC); and, there is now White House task force group report that does not fully accept the premises held by other parts of the executive branch, such as the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ).

Third: The public has more possible avenues to push for reforms and to articulate why library supporters — and the general public — should and must be involved in the debates. I am personally concerned that too many in the general public, including some library supporters, are numbed by these challenges to privacy. For ALA’s grassroots advocacy on these federal issues, there will have to be more activity and soul-searching to increase advocate involvement in the coming year.

Fourth: There are more issues to address now, not “just” the surveillance of phone records and the government’s collection of personal information. Other issues include open government and transparency, secret interpretations of laws and reform of the FISA court and its procedures. The debate must also address requiring more reporting and public information about surveillance activities how to establish effective and comprehensive oversight by Congress. Add in concerns about whistleblowers and potential threats to journalists, and it is a very full public agenda.

What does this all mean for ALA?

All of these issues, in some way or another, are part of ALA’s legislative and policy agenda based upon the library community’s long-standing commitment to First Amendment and privacy principles. The surveillance issues alone make for a very full agenda. How should ALA address these issues and how deeply? Are ALA members and other library supporters willing to get involved and to support community and public engagement?

In my next article, I’ll discuss: What are ALA’s resources to promote community engagement, advocacy and privacy education around surveillance issues? How will these debates move forward during Midwinter 2014 in Philadelphia and beyond? Finally, what will advocates learn from a Guardian reporter who will speak at Midwinter?

About Lynne Bradley

Lynne works in the ALA Washington Office and is director of ALA's Office of Government Relations.

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