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Reading is Fundamentally Unpatriotic?
February 21, 2003 8:07 AM   Subscribe

When the CIA Comes and Asks What You've Read In reaction to the Patriot Act, a Montpelier, VT bookstore has purged all customer purchase records so that it would be impossible to comply with the government's demands to see such records. Co-owner Michael Katzenberg told the Associated Press, "When the CIA comes and asks what you've read because they're suspicious of you, we can't tell them because we don't have it. We may have lost our marketing potential by doing this, but at the moment that's the price we have to pay to safeguard people's privacy." Much more information on the "resistance movement," including how to start your own grass-roots campaign, from the Bill of Rights Defense Committee FightBack. Also, what's going on with the people who lend 'em, not sell 'em, the American Library Association: ALAPatriots.
posted by NorthernLite (27 comments total)

 
I love my home state.
posted by KnitWit at 8:33 AM on February 21, 2003


Nitpick: wouldn't it be the FBI that comes and asks what you've been reading?
posted by Cyrano at 8:35 AM on February 21, 2003


that's the price we have to pay to safeguard people's privacy.

Is what troubles people about the Patriot Act really just privacy? (I mean, the government finding out you read trashy spy novels? Really?) Safeguarding people's liberty -- which the Patriot Act also threatens, given the government's unchecked power to hold terrorism suspects -- would seem to be more important, wouldn't it?

This bookstore owner doesn't make me feel safer at all.
posted by mattpfeff at 8:39 AM on February 21, 2003


On this note, kudos to the Tattered Cover bookstore in Denver, who told the government where to stick their customer-information requests, went to court, and won.
posted by gottabefunky at 8:53 AM on February 21, 2003


This not mere bookstore stuff. I am on a library commison and at our monthly meeting last evening we voted to purge records frequently in order to protect the privacy of patrons. I doubt that a would-be terrorist is taking out books; more likely, using computer to hide ISP. One member of our group is 2nd in command of law library at very prestigious university and that, ok by lawyers, is also doing this.
My postion is that you are always at risk if you read so stop it and read Metafilter posts instead.
posted by Postroad at 9:06 AM on February 21, 2003


mattpfeff, privacy is an intrinsic part (but yes, just a part) of liberty. Maybe this bookstore owner can't do a whole lot himself about the government's holding terrorism suspects, but it sure makes me glad that he's doing what he can.
posted by transient at 9:20 AM on February 21, 2003


always pay cash

always
posted by matteo at 9:25 AM on February 21, 2003


Why the heck are bookstores keeping records on their patrons anyway? Why does the library keep a record of what I read? Hasn't my privacy already been compromised by the bookstore?

I'd like to side with the book stores and libraries on this one, but for the fact that they already seem to be snooping on me. Of course this is for marketing reasons, but still, it is an equal privacy violation to the government having the info.
posted by phatboy at 10:19 AM on February 21, 2003


phatboy: Have you ever heard of a concept called inventory?

Even if the bookstores don't hand over the data, chances are the information can be obtained from your credit card company. Remember Monica Lewinsky and Vox? I've never understood the rationale behind books being used to determine a person's character. But kudos to these bookstores for refusing to cave.
posted by ed at 10:29 AM on February 21, 2003


ed:

Inventory in no way requires that a specific purchase be tied to a specific consumer. The only possible reason that they would be keeping this information is for marketing. Credit card info does not (to my knowledge) indicate the purchase, only the amount.

Bookstores used to operate fine in the days before computers and databases.
posted by phatboy at 10:46 AM on February 21, 2003


>Credit card info does not (to my knowledge) indicate the
>purchase, only the amount.

No, but loyalty & store membership cards do track individual items... (Safeway & Air Miles are good examples)

Which are re-sold for consumption/marketting analysis purposes.
posted by jkaczor at 10:53 AM on February 21, 2003


phatboy: The libraries have to know what you have checked out at the moment. They also have to know who checked out your book before you did. (So, when you bring it back and tell them the last chapter is missing they can blame the person who had the book before you.) Finally, they have to remember what you brought back late. So they can fine you. You'll claim it was on time and you wouldn't have checked out "Everyone Poops" anyway. They'll show you it was returned at the same time as you returned "The Brittany Spears Story."


So, read popular books, make sure you always return on time and never damage anything and you'll be in the clear.

This is how the vast majority of libraries work. Of course, any library that keeps your total information doesn't know how to program their circulation system.

Does anyone know of any libraries who have announced they'll be happy to report patron information?
posted by ?! at 10:53 AM on February 21, 2003


And just in case it seems bizarre and frightening that the government would try to use this information, I give you the response of Conservative America's favorite OpEd page: "some booksellers apparently think their customers' privacy is more important than the lives of terror victims."

Every time this bookstore deletes a record, another terror victim dies.
posted by subgenius at 1:10 PM on February 21, 2003


Patriot II: The Sequel Why It's Even Scarier than the First Patriot Act
posted by homunculus at 1:42 PM on February 21, 2003


privacy is an intrinsic part (but yes, just a part) of liberty. Maybe this bookstore owner can't do a whole lot himself about the government's holding terrorism suspects, but it sure makes me glad that he's doing what he can.

In an ideal world, sure, it would be protected. But I don't see that insisting on it as an absolute, inalienable right helps us as much in this one as it hurts us. If allowing government officials to see what books I bought might help them stop terrorist attacks, I think it's worth letting them, unless greater liberties (like the freedom of unconvicted terrorist suspects) would be lost -- and it is those greater liberties that I think are most important to fight for.

Living as part of a society requires the sacrifice of certain individual rights; you can't treat individual rights as absolute. You have to draw a line somewhere, and protecting personal reading lists just isn't it.
posted by mattpfeff at 2:15 PM on February 21, 2003


One of the reasons for skepticism is that no one has provided a clear explanation for how serving a supoena on a library or bookstore is supposed to aid the "war on terror." It's not like the terrorism manuals found so far are available off of amazon.com, and reading Noam Chomsky and Gore Vidal is hardly an indication that one is about to hijack a plane or drive a truck bomb into the federal building.

I'm starting to think that this provision of the Patriot act is largely just a part of an ongoing conservative tit for tat against Librarians for their role in opposing the Communications Deciency Act and installing filters on library terminals. On the other hand, it could also be a trial baloon. If congress and the American people are willing to accept secret snooping of book purchases and borrowing, then why not Total Information Awareness?

At any rate, I'm a bit bothered by the concept of thought crime being invoked in cases such as the West Memphis Three where a liking for Stephen King and Heavy Metal was used to strengthen a weak circumstantial case for ritual satanism, or the McVeigh case where the Turner Diaries played a big role in his conviction.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 2:57 PM on February 21, 2003


In an ideal world, sure, it would be protected. But I don't see that insisting on it as an absolute, inalienable right helps us as much in this one as it hurts us. If allowing government officials to see what books I bought might help them stop terrorist attacks, I think it's worth letting them, unless greater liberties (like the freedom of unconvinced terrorist suspects) would be lost -- and it is those greater liberties that I think are most important to fight for.

Well, here is a historical parable for you. In the early 1910s after a scandalous series of bombings, Congress passed a law that permitted the Postmaster General to deny 2nd class mailing permits to periodicals that did not provide an English translation prior to distribution. Anyone who has worked in a newspaper will tell you that the paper goes from editor, to typesetter, to press, to the folding machine and onto the trucks in a matter of hours. The result of this well-intentioned act for protecting national security is that in a matter of a few years the number of foreign language periodicals in the United States fell from hundreds to a few dozen.

I feel there is a free speech issue at hand here. Harassment of booksellers and libraries is bound to have an effect on what they choose to carry if the practice is legitimized. In addition there is also an issue of due process in that the normal limitations on search warrants do not apply, no way to determine the terms for the warrant, and the standards for obtaining a warrant are set ridiculously low.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 3:58 PM on February 21, 2003


I'd like to side with the book stores and libraries on this one, but for the fact that they already seem to be snooping on me.

Having spent far too many years in the cash office of a retail store, let me assure you that every time you use a credit card or a check or anything other than hard cold cash, the store has a record of exactly what you purchased, when and with what (thereby giving them your card/bank account number which can be tracked to you). Ever looked at the receipt you are handed with your purchase? It lists what you bought as well as the first few or last few digits of whatever account you used to buy it. The copy of the receipt that gets rolled up inside the register contains the full account number as well as the list of exactly what you bought (used when there are charge disputes or bounced checks requiring legal measures). Same goes for restaurants or any establishment offering any sort of services and uses modern registers and take credit/debit cards or checks.

If someone wanted to know what John Doe bought at my store and how they paid with it (thereby giving them the info they need to find your physical address) on Dec. 18, 2000 ... I could go through the paperwork and pull that info out, or call my home office (if I was being lazy) and have them pull it from the computer records. Most stores keep these records for at least a year and many keep them even longer (especially if their system is completely computerized - ours wasn't).

So if you don't want to have anyone "snooping" on you, only pay with cash ... which is what I suspect a terrorist would likely do anyway so as not to be tracked in any way.
posted by Orb at 4:58 PM on February 21, 2003


Apparently the Patriot Act affects real estate attorneys too.

And apparently the DOJ hasn't been entirely honest about who really are terrorists.
posted by homunculus at 5:31 PM on February 21, 2003


I'm not sure if it's the same at all libraries, but the library where I work has never kept records of patron checkouts.
posted by mcsweetie at 6:45 PM on February 21, 2003


>>In an ideal world, sure, it would be protected. But I don't see that insisting on it as an absolute, inalienable right helps us as much in this one as it hurts us. If allowing government officials to see what books I bought might help them stop terrorist attacks, I think it's worth letting them, unless greater liberties (like the freedom of unconvicted terrorist suspects) would be lost -- and it is those greater liberties that I think are most important to fight for. <<

*bangs head against the wall*

Once upon a time, not so long ago, a Senator named Joseph McCarthy decided that anyone who was a communist sympathizer could not possibly be a loyal citizen. He defined "communist sympathizer" to mean essentially anyone who had ever been seen with a known or suspected member of the Communist party. He hauled a lot of people in front of his committee and demanded that they provide detailed information on the communist leanings of everyone they knew.

Not so long after that, an FBI head named J. Edgar Hoover compiled detailed dossiers on quite a few citizens who were expressing their right to free speech in ways that he thought were inappropriate, like in favor of civil rights and against the Vietnam War.

Both Hoover and McCarthy would have loved the Patriot Act. Suppose, for instance, that you're arrested on a minor charge like blocking traffic during an anti-war protest. For any reason, or no reason at all, the FBI decides to go down to the local Barnes & Noble and check out your reading habits. They find that you read a lot of books about the Middle East, including books that are sympathetic to the Palestinian point of view. You even bought a Koran, and maybe a history of the jihad phenomenon.

With a sympathetic judge, and especially if you're unfortunate enough to have Arab relatives or a Middle Eastern last name, you could find your phone tapped, your mail read, your friends followed. You could find it difficult or impossible to fly anywhere, with no right of appeal or explanation of why. Even though you haven't *done* anything except exercise your right to protest the actions of your government and attempt to become better informed about important issues.

Of course, none of the agents following you around is ever going to stop a potential terrorist attack. You're completely innocent, and there's simply nothing for them to find. They'd accomplish as much if they sat around eating donuts all day.

But other than that, no, I guess I don't see a problem with it either.

Sheesh.
posted by kewms at 7:08 PM on February 21, 2003


On a generally disturbing note, I am reminded of something Hermann Goering once said:
Naturally the common people don't want war: Neither in Russia, nor in England, nor for that matter in Germany. That is understood. But, after all, It is the leaders of the country who determine the policy and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy, or a fascist dictatorship, or a parliament, or a communist dictatorship. Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the peacemakers and pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same way in every country.
This seems eerily familiar to what is happening in the US. Or maybe I don't know what I'm talking about, thats also a possibility..
posted by ac at 7:44 PM on February 21, 2003


kewms gets a round of applause!
posted by mcsweetie at 4:00 AM on February 22, 2003


Well, here is a historical parable for you.

...

*bangs head against the wall*


Sorry to disappoint you folks, but look at what I actually said:
I think it's worth letting them, unless greater liberties (like the freedom of unconvicted terrorist suspects) would be lost -- and it is those greater liberties that I think are most important to fight for.
Describing the costs of losing greater liberties -- e.g., taking away the right to free speech, or restricting your freedom to travel -- isn't actually a counter-argument to any claim I actually made.

I'm not saying privacy doesn't matter. And, yes, if you have an argument that sacrificing this particular privacy in fact has no value fighting terrorism, then of course I agree it shouldn't be sacrificed.

But I don't see any indication these bookstore owners -- or most commenters here, for that matter -- have actually made any such determination in any careful way, and I haven't seen any argument as to how this actual step would result in the lost freedoms people here are waving their hands about. And, as I said, I disagree with the implicit belief that privacy is some absolute, inviolable right; and think it is more important to talk about and protest those aspects of recent anti-terrorism legislation that are more disturbing -- particularly the power government agencies now have to detain suspects indefinitely, without charging them or giving them basic constitutional protections.

I don't like the Patriot Act. But I'm still not going to go about praising every last witless act of protest against it; in the end, we don't live in a perfect world, and it's wrong to *assume* that every last individual right should be fought for tooth and nail.

Once upon a time, not so long ago, a Senator named Joseph McCarthy ...

This is the kind of thing I'm talking about, actually. Our government gives itself the power to secretly imprison citizens, and you're upset about the possibility that invasions of privacy will lead to people being publicly exposed as readers of books?

"Sheesh," indeed.
posted by mattpfeff at 9:42 AM on February 22, 2003


>>I'm not saying privacy doesn't matter. And, yes, if you have an argument that sacrificing this particular privacy in fact has no value fighting terrorism, then of course I agree it shouldn't be sacrificed. <<

At least in the US, the presumption is that *any* restriction of civil liberties is bad, and that people seeking to restrict a right have to prove a compelling state interest in doing so. That is, the burden of proof is with those trying to limit rights, not those trying to maintain them.

Or at least that's the way it worked before the Patriot Act.
posted by kewms at 3:21 PM on February 22, 2003


the presumption is that *any* restriction of civil liberties is bad, and that people seeking to restrict a right have to prove a compelling state interest in doing so.

And what I'm saying is, it's entirely conceivable that increasing the government's power to prevent terrorist attacks is worth sharing one's book purchases for.

The point, however, is just that it's conceivable. Why should we base our response to a particular, specific law on presumptions? Protesting parts of the Patriot Act on the presumption that they're bad is just dumb -- they either are or they aren't, and you should base your protests on actual arguments. What's more, there are definitely parts that are demonstrably scary, and worth objecting to on far stronger grounds than the presumption that, Hey, we should all be free, man.

For example -- and I hope this concerns you, even though it's nothing like your dreaded McCarthyism -- consider this implication of Patriot II (as described on FindLaw):
Detentions will be similarly shrouded in an atmosphere of dead secrecy. The Justice Department's position on detainees is that if they are held incommunicado indefinitely without being charged with a crime, they need not be publicly identified. Patriot II would make that dubious position the law.

Meanwhile, if you do happen to somehow find out the identity or whereabouts of - or anything else about - a detainee, it would be criminal under Patriot II to reveal it. And that's the case even if you are the detainee's parent, spouse, or child.

Okay, you might ask, this is a lot of secrecy, but isn't it at least somewhat limited? Can't I at least use the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to figure out what the government is doing when it's not secretly detaining people, or secretly conducting grand jury proceedings?

No. Under Patriot II, FOIA would not extend to information "specifically exempted from disclosure by statute." What kind of statutes? Well, the USA Patriot Act might be one. Patriot II might be another.

It's a clever strategy: Collect private information. And then when citizens try to find out what you've collected, cite their own privacy right back at them as a reason not to divulge it.
Do you see what I'm getting at? I'm not saying that privacy doesn't matter; I'm saying that there are other, more dangerous things to worry about, and that failing to recognize that risks losing sight of where the greatest threats to our freedoms actually lie.
posted by mattpfeff at 4:47 PM on February 22, 2003


The point, however, is just that it's conceivable. Why should we base our response to a particular, specific law on presumptions? Protesting parts of the Patriot Act on the presumption that they're bad is just dumb -- they either are or they aren't, and you should base your protests on actual arguments. What's more, there are definitely parts that are demonstrably scary, and worth objecting to on far stronger grounds than the presumption that, Hey, we should all be free, man.

One of the reasons why this is treated with such a high degree of skepticism is that freedom of the press is one of those areas in which democracy is most sensitive. The ability to supoena what you read as part of a criminal investigation is on the same order as serving a supoena on voting records to see which write-in candidates you supported.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 6:27 PM on February 22, 2003


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