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Privacy and Surveillance

ALA’s extensive First Amendment, liberty and privacy principles guide the association’s work in the federal legislative and policy arenas as well as at the state and local levels in order to protect personal privacy based upon a long standing commitment to patron privacy. Advancing the library community’s principles to protect patron confidentiality requires major grassroots work from the library community to promote library priorities in these environments. There are several parts of ALA that work on these important issues.

Surveillance, Privacy, Open Government and Constitutional Rights

Revelations began in June 2013 that the National Security Agency (NSA) and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) have been obtaining and storing vast amounts of personal information about millions of innocent people. These reports about the government gaining access of this data thru the use of Section 215, often called the “library provision,” of the USA PATRIOT Act, emphasize the need to protect our constitutional rights as well as the need to stay engaged in these important debates. The revelations raise questions, not just about personal privacy and surveillance, but also about open government and transparency.

The American Library Association and our nation’s libraries have long been committed to the principles of free speech, protection of privacy, open government and access to government information. These democratic principles have translated into education and advocacy within the library community and with the public, at every level of government and in all kinds of libraries.

At the congressional level, following these revelations on government data mining, ALA renewed its call for reforms that would improve oversight and accountability, declassify information necessary to promote public debate and assure true oversight and transparency in this whole arena.There must be a better balance between our constitutional rights and the need to thwart terrorism.

In calling for a public dialogue on privacy, ALA developed a toolkit and other resources to support librarians and others to convene forums and moderate community discussions on privacy.Libraries trusted institutions in their respective communities that can provide information, promote education and enable dialogue on this constellation of issues.There is no better community institution to begin this dialogue. Let the debate begin.

Office for Intellectual Freedom

In conjunction with the ALA Intellectual Freedom Committee (IFC), ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom (OIF) conducts the associations work on intellectual freedom and privacy issues at the state and local levels, often working also with state library association chapters. OIF also takes the lead on most ALA litigation on these issues.

Office of Government Relations

At the federal level, ALA’s Committee on Legislation (COL) works with the Office of Government Relations (OGR). The federal debates often focus on provisions of the USA PATRIOT Act, the Electronic Computer Privacy Act (ECPA), the Computer Assistance for Law Enforcement Act (CALEA) and other surveillance and data retention proposals.

View all current privacy/surveillance news

Other ALA Policy Issues:

Education/School Libraries
Digital Literacy
Government Information

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Emily Wagner

Emily Wagner is the assistant director of knowledge management and communications at the American Library Association's Washington Office. She holds a bachelor's degree from Mount Holyoke College and a master's in library and information science from Catholic University.