National Security

Forget hackers. Libraries fear that it’s the feds who’ll go after your data.

Concern is rising among libraries about the federal government’s interest in obtaining data that librarians think should remain private.
Concern is rising among libraries about the federal government’s interest in obtaining data that librarians think should remain private. The State

Chalk up another group concerned about privacy and data security issues: libraries and archives.

This week, the San Francisco-based Internet Archive announced a drive to raise $5 million to set up a mirror repository of the entire internet and place it in Canada for safety.

It turns out the nonprofit Internet Archive isn’t alone in taking action.

The New York Public Library announced a change this week to its privacy policy, informing users that it would retain less information about their activities.

The American Library Association, headquartered in Chicago, embraced that move and encourages others, including telling public libraries to encrypt all communications and lock up stored data to protect it from a prying government.

“Libraries are haunted by the past, when people were rounded up for things that they read, and bad things happening to them,” said Brewster Kahle, the founder of the Internet Archive.

Kahle’s drive to place a backup site for the Internet Archive in Canada is born of years of clashes with the FBI for information that have unfolded largely outside of public view. Those battles, and ones by a handful of libraries, have left scars and wariness of government intrusion.

“It’s essentially a ‘trust me’ situation, and there have been many times in our history where ‘trust me’ has not been enough,” said Deborah Caldwell-Stone, deputy director of the American Library Association’s Office of Intellectual Freedom.

The Internet Archive is a massive electronic warehouse of the web, including a vast collection of what has been on television since the turn of the century, and irreplaceable webpages that have been erased elsewhere.

“It’s now 279 billion pages, and it increases at about half a billion pages a week. And it is absolutely unique and a record of our time,” Kahle said.

In a letter to supporters on Tuesday, Kahle said he expected government surveillance to increase under the Donald Trump administration, and he told them to prepare for an internet “that may face greater restrictions.” The announcement kicked up a storm.

“What we’ve been surprised about is the level of reaction and people coming forward and saying, ‘Hooray! Let’s see if we can help,’ which is really kind of heartwarming,” Kahle said.

The Internet Archive maintains its servers in two locations in the United States, he said, and has looked to Canada because legislation there is “even more friendly to digital libraries.”

To set up a mirror site, the group is in talks with Canadian universities that could host a significant operation. “Think of it as 30 racks (of computers), so it’s pretty major,” Kahle said.

Kahle’s appeal for donations coincided this week with a triumph on another front for the Internet Archive, which announced that the FBI has backed down from a national security letter it sent the archive in August, along with an accompanying gag order, demanding information. The group challenged the gag order and has published the letter.

It marks the second time the Justice Department has pursued Kahle’s group for information in a way that could have spelled doom for the project. The first national security letter sent to the group was in 2007.

Back then, Kahle went to lawyers at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a San Francisco advocacy group that defends civil liberties in the digital realm, and it agreed to help. But it offered a bleak assessment of the outlook.

“What if we don’t answer?” Kahle asked them of the letter. “They said, ‘Jail.’ Can I bring this up with my board? ‘No.’ Can I talk about this with my family? ‘No. The only thing you can do is sue the United States government.’ ”

If it hadn’t been for pro bono lawyers, Kahle said, the archive would have faced calamity. Under the gag order, he wasn’t allowed to talk even with the finance group that raises donations for the Internet Archive. He couldn’t explain why the group needed legal assistance.

The Justice Department has sent out tens of thousands of such letters since the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, including to some public libraries but mostly to internet service providers and companies unwittingly handling communications for people suspected of being terrorists.

“People who get them can’t talk about them unless the government says they can,” said Lee Tien, a staff attorney and expert in internet rights at the Foundation.

“It seems inane to think that the mere fact that ‘Oh, yes, we received one of these’ is so dangerous that it needs to be suppressed by default,” Tien said. “Very few providers are going to the trouble to fight the gag.”

Caldwell-Stone, the library association official, who is also a lawyer, said her group wasn’t motivated by a specific concern about a Trump presidency. But she said the association had observed a prolonged process of federal encroachment on library-held information.

“We’ve been constantly concerned, no matter the administration, that patron data is protected from unreasonable search and seizure,” she said.

Michele Mayes, the New York Public Library’s vice president and general counsel, said in a statement that revised policies at the library had no relation to the presidential election.

“"Our updated privacy policy was developed following more than a year of review, and it was approved by the Library's Board of Trustees prior to the election in September 2016. Our paramount interest is the privacy of our users, period,” Mayes said.

Tim Johnson: 202-383-6028, @timjohnson4