Privacy at the Library

privacy at library computers

The right to privacy and intellectual freedom can often be seen as two sides of the same coin. Nowhere is this truer in practice than at public libraries everywhere. The American Library Association promotes privacy and intellectual freedom through its code of ethics and the Choose Privacy Week, typically held the first week of May each year. Libraries are often the proving ground for contesting surveillance practices and ensuring equitable access to information for all.

Traditionally, a patron’s use of library materials and browsing history on library computers was confidential, and could only be accessed with a court order. After the passage of the Patriot Act in 2001, the FBI was empowered to obtain library records with a National Security Letter, which does not require a judge’s approval. In response, the ALA and libraries around the United States have continued to push back against surveillance, and support patrons’ right to privacy while using the library.

In one notable case, a public library in New Hampshire (in keeping with the state motto of “live free or die”) installed a TOR exit node, after a “crypto activist” approached them to be part of a pilot program for the Library Freedom Project (LFP). Since libraries are already shielded from some of the legal implications of running a TOR exit node, they are an ideal location, and the LFP hopes to increase the number of exit nodes installed at libraries nationwide. Once a story about the exit node was published, the library came to the attention of law enforcement officials, and the node was turned off. Ultimately, the library’s board of trustees unanimously voted to restore the node.

Fortunately, the ALA and groups like the Library Freedom Project continue to advocate for our rights to privacy and intellectual freedom. For more information about how libraries can protect privacy and provide privacy education to patrons, take a look at the LFP’s workshops and privacy toolkits