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Who’s Reading Over Your Shoulder?

by Zara Gelsey

I hate the feeling of someone reading over my shoulder. Not only is it superficially distracting, but it often affects how I respond to the text. Being conscious of being watched inhibits my thinking because I find myself reading through my watcher’s eyes. It makes me suddenly self-conscious, wondering if the stranger is making faulty suppositions about me based on the book in my hand. The bored businessman next to me on the train isn’t a big deal, but the thought of the FBI peering over my shoulder in the public library definitely puts me on edge.

Since the USA PATRIOT Act was passed in October 2001, the FBI has been reading over shoulders by visiting libraries across the US to demand library patron’s reading records and other files. Under the PATRIOT Act, the FBI doesn’t have to demonstrate “probable cause” of criminal activity to request records. In fact, the so-called “search warrant” is issued by a secret court. Once granted, it entitles the FBI to procure any library records pertaining to book circulation, Internet use or patron registration. Librarians can even be compelled to cooperate with the FBI in monitoring Internet usage. This sort of secrecy is not only chilling, it is ripe for potential abuse. A similar Cold War version of library monitoring was called the Library Awareness Program, through which FBI agents specifically targeted Soviet and Eastern European nationals. The American Library Association effectively fought the <L.A.P>. then, and is now standing up to the PATRIOT Act searches. They unequivocally oppose “the use of any governmental prerogatives which leads to the intimidation of the individual or the citizenry from the exercise of free expression.” (ALA Policy on Governmental Intimidation (1981)). The ALA sees the new FBI policy for what it is: blatant intimidation of readers.

But beyond FBI intimidation tactics, the new library surveillance program is bound to backfire. What you read does say something about your interests, but it may say different things to different people. If one only sees a few details about someone else’s life, their actions can easily be contorted to fit the observer’s version of reality. This is a classic sit-com plot line: an observer misconstrues a sequence of unrelated details, and then has a skewed perception of the protagonist. Perhaps the observer reads a personal letter that’s lying on a coffee table, but doesn’t know it is part of a novel-in-progress. Based on this bit of information, the observer constructs conclusions, with a succession of trivial actions seemingly reinforcing the observer’s misperceptions, all to the delight of the omniscient audience.

By seeking to discover what books certain people are reading, the FBI falls right into the role of the ill-informed observer in a similar plot line being played out in libraries across the country. Only it’s not so delightful when the FBI concludes you’re a terrorist because you’re doing research at your local library for an article on suicide bombings, and have amassed a circulation record they deem suspicious. A person who reads a book intending to make a bomb could be a suspect, as could anyone doing research on terrorist bombings in order to prevent them. The same knowledge can be used for “good” or “evil.” The fateful tree in the Garden of Eden represented the Knowledge of Good and Evil-opposing values intertwined on one tree. The FBI can’t possibly know the intent of knowledge harvested from books, and affording them the opportunity to pretend they can is incredibly dangerous.

Just as a person wearing rose-colored glasses sees everything rosy, so the FBI is predisposed to find suspicious facts. If the FBI wants to scour libraries looking for “suspicious” reading records, they’re going to find them, but their perception is inherently skewed by their intent. I view reading as access to information; the FBI views it as an indictment. They suddenly fear domestic suicide bombings, so reading lists are examined and suddenly an innocent researcher is a suspect. In the worst cast scenario, details could be dragged from the one’s past, which seemingly support suspicions. In the best case scenario, the FBI has just wasted a lot of time tracking a fictional suspect who they’ve created from a list of books. Meanwhile, all of us feel the presence of Big Brother reading over our shoulders.

Yes, we want protection from terrorists and we want our government to root out those who intend to harm us. But surveillance always spreads beyond it’s original purpose, justified each step of the way by manufactured fear and “better safe than sorry” rationales. We saw this winter how the War on Drugs was deftly tied to the tail of the War on Terrorism: today the FBI is looking for records of people who check out books on bomb-making, tomorrow they’re likely to question why you’ve checked out books about the Columbian drug war.

While the FBI may never visit your library (not that you’ll know if they do as librarians are barred by law from disclosing the FBI’s presence), this program of surveillance still has a chilling effect on cognitive liberty. The feeling of being monitored inhibits freedom of thought. Take for instance Winston Smith in Orwell’s 1984. When Winston gets up the nerve to hide from the omnipresent telescreen to indulge in writing with pen and paper, an act not expressly forbidden, but punishable nonetheless, he “seemed not merely to have lost the power of expressing himself, but even to have forgotten what it was he originally intended to say.” Excessive surveillance trained him to self-censor, thereby stifling his creative and cognitive abilities. Likewise, the FBI’s surveillance is bound to have a chilling effect on seekers of knowledge who rely on the public library system. It’s implied that you’d better watch what you read-because they’ll be watching too. Intimidating readers in such a manner is, in effect, controlling what we read and how we think.

Freedom of thought and the freedom to read are intertwined. And while monitoring library records is not as direct as banning books, it is bound to cause self-censorship among readers, which may be the intended result anyway. The government may not be able to ban a book, so instead it will make you a suspect if you read that book. The FBI is merely circumventing the First Amendment by threatening readers rather than prohibiting what they read.

We may not always like what people do with some of the information they access, but that’s what ensures our right of access to information. As Supreme Court Justice Kennedy recently observed, “The mere tendency of speech to encourage unlawful acts is not sufficient reason for banning it…. First Amendment freedoms are most in danger when the government seeks to control thought or to justify its laws for that impermissible end. The right to think is the beginning of freedom, and speech must be protected from the government because speech is the beginning of thought.” (Majority opinion: Ashcroft v. Free Speech Coalition).

Under the guise of protecting us from terrorism, this surveillance program intimidates library patrons by spying over our shoulders, collecting reading lists and tracking Internet usage. The FBI is policing our minds by purporting to read them. Of course we want to be kept safe, but not to the extent that we ourselves are patrolled and treated as suspects. Giving up privacy rights can’t guarantee physical safety, but it will almost certainly inhibit intellectual freedom and limit cognitive liberty. Americans who cherish our freedom, we should seriously consider whether or not this is a compromise we are willing to make.

Zara Gelsey is Director of Communications for the Center for Cognitive Liberty & Ethics. Zara can be reached at:


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