The USA PATRIOT Act was introduced shortly after September 11, 2001. It stands for "Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism." It was signed into law on October 26, 2001 and broadly expanded the authority of the Federal Bureau of Investigation to gain access to all types of records, including library records, stored electronic data and electronic communications. It amended more than 15 different statutes, including the Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1986 (ECPA), the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA), the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), and the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA).
The USA PATRIOT Act reauthorization legislation was signed into law by President Bush on March 9, 2006, and differs somewhat from the original legislation. A sunset of December 31, 2009, was established for Section 215 of the USA PATRIOT Act. The USA PATRIOT Act was renewed in 2011.
The following points about the USA PATRIOT Act were presented by the American Library Association (ALA), Office for Intellectual Freedom at the 2008 Public Library Association Conference:
- The Act authorizes the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to issue an order to the FBI, permitting its agents to gain access to “any tangible thing (including books, records, papers, documents, and other items) for an investigation to protect against international terrorism or clandestine intelligence activities.” The definition includes library circulation records, Internet sign-up sheets, computer hard drives, databases and other media in the library.
- Only the FBI may use the PATRIOT Act as the basis for obtaining information.
- Gag Order: Warrants issued under the Section 215 Business Records provision prohibit the recipient from disclosing the existence of the warrant, or the fact that records were turned over to the FBI. There are two exceptions: the order can be disclosed to any person to whom disclosure is necessary to comply with the orders; the order can be disclosed to an attorney in order to obtain legal advice or assistance with the production of the items sought by the order.
- National Security Letters (NSL) are written commands to produce certain types of records. They are issued on the authority of the FBI, without judicial approval or judicial oversight. NSLs are used to obtain particular types of records: electronic communications and transactions; financial records, credit card records, records of large cash transactions and consumer credit records. They are subject to gag orders as described above.
- To ensure privacy and confidentiality for library users, the ALA, Office for Intellectual Freedom suggests that libraries avoid creating unnecessary records; avoid retaining records that are not needed for efficient operation of the library; limit the degree to which personally identifiable information is monitored, collected, disclosed and distributed; avoid library practices and procedures that place personally identifiable information on public view.
- Library Policies: Should communicate the library’s commitment to protect users’ personally identifiable information; inform library users how their personally identifiable information is used, stored and protected by the library; explain under what circumstances personally identifiable information might be disclosed to third parties and law enforcement.
Since the interpretation of the USA PATRIOT Act is evolving, for the most up-to-date information, go to http://www.ala.org/