For immediate release | June 6, 2013

ALA calls for accountability and transparency in nation’s surveillance laws

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The American Library Association (ALA) is gravely concerned, but unfortunately not surprised, at this week’s revelations that the U.S. government obtained the phone records of all Verizon customers for the last seven years. Leaders of the association again call upon Congress to provide more accountability and transparency about how the government is obtaining and using vast amounts of information about innocent people.

“The library community welcomes a renewed public debate on how to balance the need to fight terrorism and the need to protect personal privacy and civil liberties,” said ALA President Maureen Sullivan. “Millions of innocent customers, at least Verizon’s, have had their personal phone records released to the government without their knowledge and without allegations of specific facts supporting the relevance of their records to a federal terrorism investigation. We must demand more accountability and transparency in all of these surveillance issues. Our nation’s libraries are a tremendous information resource for those who want to better understand the issues and a place to begin debates about these issues,” she added.

ALA’s response follows media reports that the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) has every three months, for seven years, been renewing a Section 215 order to obtain phone records of all Verizon customers. The FISC is a secret court authorized to issue such orders under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA.) In a public hearing on Thursday morning, Senator Diane Feinstein (D-CA) indicated that the order identified in yesterday's news reports is just a “regular” renewal of an order that started seven years ago.

Under Section 215 of the PATRIOT Act, the government may obtain "business records and other tangible things," including phone records about who makes the call, who is on the other end of the line and where they are located. Other statutes address wiretapping and the collection of the contents of phone calls and other electronic communications. Companies receiving Section 215 orders are forbidden by law from divulging any information about the subpoenas to their customers.

Section 215 became known as the “library provision” because of the library community's concern that the provision could be used to obtain library users' reading records as well as huge amounts of personal information on anyone and everyone. Protection of readers' privacy, including what people read, how they use the Internet and other communications is part of ALA’s long standing principles to protect and foster First Amendment rights and the privacy of library users and others.

Barbara Jones, director of ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom, said, “The lack of transparency is symptomatic of the growing trend in our secret laws and we must correct the flaws. Are these new revelations just the tip of the iceberg? Did other companies receive such subpoenas and what other records has the government been obtaining on such a broad scale? What about library records and those of our users? The public needs to know.”

“Our community calls for public dialogue about how to open up FISA and other surveillance laws so that there can be true accountability and an improved balance between individual privacy and the need of government to investigate terrorism and other crimes, said Lynne Bradley, director of ALA’s Office of Government Relations. “We need to make changes to our surveillance laws.”

About the American Library Association

The American Library Association is the oldest and largest library association in the world, with approximately 58,000 members in academic, public, school, government, and special libraries. The mission of the American Library Association is to provide leadership for the development, promotion and improvement of library and information services and the profession of librarianship in order to enhance learning and ensure access to information for all.


Jazzy Wright

Press Officer

American Library Association

Washington Office