Library says it hasn't received Patriot Act requests
University Library officials said this week that they have received no requests for student or faculty library records under the USA PATRIOT Act in the five years since Congress passed the controversial law. But Library policy protects the identity of its patrons by deleting records of loans as soon as those books are returned.
Librarians cautioned, however, that had law enforcement requested any records, the University would not be at liberty to discuss any requests authorized under the act.
"If we were approached, we cannot say that we were," said Trevor Dawes, the Library's circulation services director.
The Patriot Act, signed into law just over a month after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, allows U.S. law enforcement agencies to subpoena the library records of anyone suspected of terrorist activity. Section 215 of the act — called the "library provision" — has been decried by critics for infringing on civil liberties.
The Library's "Policy on Confidentiality of Library Patron Records" states that "disclosure may be required pursuant to a subpoena, court order or other applicable laws, in which case such disclosure will be made ... and, to the extent permitted by law, only after giving advance notice to the patron."
The Patriot Act's provisions notwithstanding, Library policy makes it difficult for law enforcement to collect patron records, officials said. Though the Library keeps records of who has a book at any given time, there is no record of a patron's past activity. As soon as a book is returned, it can no longer be traced to the patrons who have previously checked it out.
"The Library has always been committed to patron privacy," deputy librarian Marvin Bielawski said.
The practice of deleting past records protects students and faculty information from being accessed under the authority of the library provision, Bielawski and Dawes said in separate interviews.
"We don't want to know who had the books," Dawes said. "And in fact it protects us by not keeping the information because we don't have it to give."
Other universities have moved to shield their students and faculty from the provisions of the Patriot Act. Several Canadian universities, including the University of Alberta, Dalhousie University and Memorial University of Newfoundland, have in recent weeks announced that they would abandon use of several of U.S. web-based library services, favoring services hosted in Canada that are beyond the reach of U.S. law.
Concerns about RefWorks, an online reference and citation tool, prompted the Canadian schools' move. The program and similar databases are used at Princeton, but Library officials said they are not concerned about the privacy of that information.
Because most library computers are located in clusters, "they use a generic login so users don't have to log in with their own name," Bielawski said. It remains unclear how much information would be available to law enforcement, however, if students use their personal computers to access RefWorks and similar Web-based services.
"Of course we all know that there may be hidden practices that would horrify us if we knew about them," Wilson School professor Stanley Katz, who studies arts and cultural policy, said in an email. "But ... my impression is that the privacy of users generally, including students, has so far been respected — well, not violated."
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