In the wake of the revelations by Edward Snowden of widespread government surveillance of American citizens, there's a surprising battle front in the fight for privacy. The public library.
Zoe Carpenter, assistant Washington Editor for the Nation Magazine, has reported extensively on the efforts of the nation's librarians to protect patrons privacy against the prying of the NSA.
"I'm not sure people understand how this affects them, even if they understand the scale of the information gathering," says Carpenter.
After the September 11 terrorist attacks, the Patriot Act authorized the government to collect library records of patrons, often without their knowledge. Carpenter says one of the things that came out of the Snowden revelations was how broadly the government had interpreted that provision.
"What Snowden showed is that provision had been broadened to include the collection of data from phone companies like Verizon. The main point is the surveillance the government said they were not conducting was being used on a much wider scale."
The Patriot Act not only allows the collection of what books a person might check out at the library, but it also includes their online history on public computers too.
Carpenter says librarians are uniquely positioned to lead the fight against the NSA, but they need the tools to teach patrons how to be safer online.
"People realize this is a serious issue, but they don't know what they can do about it. Librarians are a key part of that. I'm not someone who considers themselves very tech savvy, and the idea of using an encrypted browser is scary. But, if the library were to offer a workshop on how to do that, it would make it easier for me to understand that. This information gathering seems unstoppable, but there's a lot of information we give away voluntarily. We could choose to use better passwords. Librarians have the power to help people, but they have to learn those skills."