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Librarians concerned about Patriot Act
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In Rochester, librarians keep records for the shortest possible time, in an effort to protect privacy rights of patrons. (Photo courtesy Rochester Public Library)
A month after the attacks on the World Trade Center, Congress passed the USA Patriot Act. It was designed to help federal authorities track down and stop potential terrorists. But librarians around the country are worried about how the Patriot Act might affect people who visit the library. Some say it's putting their privacy at risk.

Rochester, Minn. — People come to the Rochester Public Library to check out a book, use the computer, or watch a video. There's a tutoring program for teenagers, and meeting rooms for community groups.

Audrey Betcher, the library,s director, knows all these things belong in the library. What she's not so sure about is whether she should be warning library visitors that the FBI could check up on what they're reading.

"Do we put up signs everywhere, saying, 'Your data may not be private?'" she wonders. "Because that is, in fact, what the law allows law enforcement to get access to."

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Image Rochester library director Audrey Betcher

But Betcher doesn't want to scare people away, either.

"Do you have people who want to use library resources, but won't because the information may no longer be private?" she says.

Minnesota law says the check-out records of library patrons are private. Law enforcement agencies need a court order to look at them. The Patriot Act loosened the rules for getting a court order.

Normally, investigators have to show probable cause that a crime is being committed. Now, they merely need to say the information they want is related to a terrorist or intelligence investigation.

Audrey Betcher says that could have a chilling effect on freedom of information and thought.

"I don't have a problem in assisting law enforcement when it's a known individual, and they have a specific incident they're looking for," Betcher says. "I have much bigger problem when it's a fishing expedition -- 'Let's go out and see what people in this community are looking at and thinking, and then let's target them based on that.'"

The court order can prohibit the library from telling anyone about it, including the patron under investigation.

We have to make a factual showing ... that has to be endorsed by a judge.
- Tom Heffelfinger, U.S. Attorney for Minnesota

The U.S. attorney for Minnesota, Tom Heffelfinger, says terrorism investigations often need to be kept secret. And he says federal investigators are not conducting fishing expeditions.

"We have to make a factual showing, and that factual showing has to be endorsed by a judge of the intelligence court," says Heffelfinger.

The intelligence court is a special panel appointed by the Supreme Court to oversee investigations into terrorism and espionage. It was established by the Foreign Intelligence Security Act, or FISA.

Last year, federal authorities asked for permission to conduct secret investigations more than 1,200 times. That's a 30 percent increase from the previous year. Nearly all the requests were granted.

Heffelfinger says as far as he knows, the secret court process has never been used in Minnesota. Audrey Betcher says the FBI has never come to the Rochester Public Library with a warrant.

Most of her patrons probably don't think about whether their records are kept private or not. One library user, Larry Dankert, didn't know about the Patriot Act, but he has no problem with law enforcement searching library records.

"I think that'd be fine. I don't see where it would hurt anybody," Dankert says.

"It's like an invasion," says another, Albert Nelson. "They shouldn't have to look at my record of what I do here, or check on the Internet. It's none of their business."

But library patron Shermila Kanvinde says making library records available to law enforcement is probably a good idea, given everything that's happening in the world.

"I think this is really a good way of knowing what kind of material is being researched, or just to get to the bottom of it," Kanvinde says.

Libraries have historically been committed to protecting the privacy of their patrons. Many are updating their systems to make sure they keep records for the shortest possible time. In Rochester, when a book is returned, there's no longer a record of who checked it out. Records on computer use are deleted once a month.

Librarians say it's their way of being ready to obey the law, while protecting the privacy of their patrons as best they can.

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