With the USA Freedom Act in Place, What's the Biggest Threat to Patron Privacy in America?

On May 13, 2015, the House of Representatives passed the USA Freedom Act by a vote of 338-88. Less than three weeks later, on June 2, the act was passed in the Senate without amendment, by a vote of 67-32. On that same day, the Freedom Act was signed into law by President Obama.

Many laws don’t emerge that quickly, but the Freedom Act was designed to replace and rectify Section 215 of the USA Patriot Act, which was allowed to sunset on June 1, 2015. Section 215, the infamous “library records” provisions of the Patriot Act, allowed law enforcement to request patron reading and computer records from libraries—and then to issue a gag order to prevent librarians from talking about these investigations.

Librarians will be pleased with several changes that come with the Freedom Act. The NSA will no longer collect library records in bulk, and any request for records must relate to a specific investigation. Just as important, the Freedom Act strengthens judicial review of the gag orders libraries receive when they’re delivered a National Security Letter.

Even though the government still has the power to get records and information, they may not be the biggest threat to your patrons’ security. What is the largest obstacle? Often, it’s patrons themselves.

In the wake of the Patriot Act, libraries fought valiantly to protect their patrons’ privacy. But now that we live much of our lives online, many people are accustomed to giving their information away. Though they are free to share their personal details, we can help patrons make educated decisions about their privacy in two main ways:

1. Be clear about privacy and security in the library.

Let patrons know what records contain personally identifying information, and post signage about your security measures. In addition to informing patrons about the library’s risks and protections, you’ll be reminding them that security in general is important.

2. Offer privacy classes, programs, and other education to your patrons.

Though privacy in the library is crucial, your library can also educate patrons on their privacy rights in all parts of their lives. If you haven’t already, try offering privacy classes to your patrons about how to live safely in an increasingly digital world.

Want to start talking about privacy but not sure where to start? These resources can help kick off your efforts.

  • Library Freedom Project: This group of librarians, technologists, attorneys and privacy advocates provide workshops and resources to teach librarians about surveillance threats, privacy rights, and digital tools to stop surveillance. Discussed topics include safer browsing, file deletion, viruses and malware, passwords, and email.
  • The Guardian Project: The Guardian Project creates apps and software as privacy-safe alternatives to popular solutions. Though this isn’t an educational site per se, it’s worth telling patrons about different choices for mobile apps.
  • ALA’s Privacy Week: The American Library Association has instituted Privacy Week, an initiative that facilitates a national conversation about privacy rights and provides resources for libraries to use in educating patrons on privacy. These range from promotional materials like bookmarks, posters, and web graphics to guides for hosting a community forum on privacy.

Under the Patriot Act, libraries stood up for patrons’ intellectual freedom, the right to learn about whatever topic they choose. Today, protecting that right requires education about online privacy—and who better to teach those lessons than the library, the designated space for freedom of thought?

Whether or not patrons mind how accessible their information is, they should always have the choice to share it or not. Through transparency and education, libraries can give them that choice.

Looking for more ways to focus on privacy? Check out The Top 7 Ways to Protect Your Patrons’ Privacy, a webinar hosted by Jason Griffey.


Mallory Wilson, MLIS
Associate Business Development Specialist