Questioning Report on Library Surveillance:
Over at PrawfsBlawg, my friend Daniel Solove responds to a New York Times story about an American Libary Association press release claiming that state and federal law enforcement have made over 200 requests for information at libraries since 2001. There is no indication that any of the requests were related to the Patriot Act; no indication of what kind of information investigators sought or why; and no indication of whether this number is higher or lower than pre-2001 contact rates. Nonetheless, the ALA is claiming that this shows the DOJ is lying to the Amercian people that it isn't conducting surveillance at libraries. Solove comments: "the reality appears to be that in a number of cases, law enforcement authorites are interested in what some people are reading after all."

  I'm a lot more skeptical about this story. The ALA is engaged in a legislative fight right now trying to get the Senate to adopt the House's view that libraries should be exempt from the usual surveillance rules. Oddly, they announced the major findings of their report but have not yet released the report itself to allow us to scrutinize the report ourselves. Further, according to the Times story, librarians who reponded to the survey were intructed to do so anonymously, "to address legal concerns." This is a rather odd choice; very few types of surveillance come with any nondisclosure orders, so in the vast majority (if not all) cases, librarians are perfectly free to disclose all of the details and name names. Finally, note the careful wording in the Times story about the scope of the report: the report apparently logged the number of "inquiries to libraries for information on reading material and other internal matters." What are "other internal matters," and how many of the requests for information concerned "other internal matters" rather than "information on reading material"? My guess is almost all of them, but the report apparently doesn't say.

  Putting it all together, it seems that the report gives us a number probably based mostly or entirely on contacts unrelated to reading habits; is based on anonymous reporting for reasons that remain a bit unclear; and even then, the report itself hasn't been released by the lobbying group that created it so we can't read it. This was good enough for the New York Times, but I think a bit more caution is warranted before we can accept the alleged findings at face value.