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Published: Tuesday, 5/13/2008

Resisting library snoops

A RECENT attempt by the government to snoop on a library patron has thankfully been thwarted. But it took legal action on behalf of Internet Archive, an online library, to stop the FBI from forcing the Web site to rat on the reader.

It certainly is not the first time the government gumshoes have tried to obtain online information about someone without benefit of a court order, using administrative subpoenas or national security letters.

Between 2003 and 2006, the FBI reportedly issued nearly 200,000 national security letters ostensibly as urgent investigative tools to fight terrorism.

Typically, they've been served on U.S. Internet providers, telephone companies, and financial institutions seeking customer transactions, billing records, and other privately held electronic communication. Recipients of these national security letters are barred from disclosing their existence or discussing them with anyone except lawyers, who are also covered by the gag order.

But libraries, even digital ones, were singled out by Congress in 2006 for added protection from secret government demands. And Internet Archive, which provides a repository for archived Web sites that may no longer be available for viewing anywhere else, went to court to fight the FBI's request for a user's personal information in what is believed to be the first challenge to a national security letter served upon a library.

Founder Brewster Kahle, whose nonprofit digital library works in collaboration with the Library of Congress and the Smithsonian Institution, argued that the government's request not only was overly broad, but that it also violated free speech rights by prohibiting recipients from talking about it to anyone.

Mr. Kahle, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the national security letter program and the FBI subsequently withdrew the objectionable letter on April 22.

The FBI didn't explain what prompted it to drop the case but defended its move as relevant to ongoing national security investigations. Director Robert Mueller has previously conceded that the bureau has misused its national security letter powers, greatly expanded under the Patriot Act, but insisted such improprieties are being addressed with better internal safeguards.

Still, counters ACLU lawyer Melissa Goodman, it's curious that in each of the three court challenges to the national security letter program, the FBI has withdrawn its demands for records. "I think that calls into question how much the FBI needed the information in the first place," she said.

Or whether the FBI really needs this kind of sweeping and unchecked surveillance power at all.

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