Libraries Will Destroy User Data Under Trump Government

Public and private libraries around the United States have pledged to destroy user data on their computers, as well as backing up system data abroad.

Further Reading

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How To Keep Your Data Safe Under President Trump


New York Public Library

Last week the New York Public Library (NYPL) changed its privacy policy. Before the change, the NYPL website said:

“Any library record or other information collected by the Library as described heroine is subject to disclosure pursuant to subpoena, court order, or as otherwise authorized by applicable law.”

The new privacy policy now says:

“Sometimes the law requires us to share your information, such as if we receive a valid subpoena, warrant or court order. We may share your information if our careful review leads us to believe that the law, including state privacy law applicable to Library Records, requires us to do so.”

Additionally, the NYPL says that it won’t keep data any longer than necessary:

“We are committed to keeping such information, outlined in all the examples above, only as long as needed in order to provide Library services.”

Internet Archive

The NYPL isn’t the only one. The Internet Archive said that it wants to create a new backup system in Canada for its repository of information. Home of the Wayback Machine, the Archive’s goal is to preserve the internet. This is a lot of storage – think petabytes and exabytes. In a statement, Archive founder Brewster Kahle told The Guardian“We have statements by President Trump saying he’s against net neutrality and he wants to expand libel laws...”


Image credit: Internet Archive

American Library Association

Originally, the ALA said on November 18 that it would “work with President-elect Trump” and his transition team. Now the association has apologized, saying, “We understand that content from these press releases, including the 11/18/16 release that was posted in error, was interpreted as capitulating to and normalizing the incoming administration.”

City University of New York

At the Graduate Center at the City University of New York, librarians have begun purging interlibrary loan records. While records of which books you read may seem innocuous, guilt by association with controversial books has a complex history. Beth Posner, head of library resource sharing at the school, said:

“We will continue to keep all requests from 2013 forward until further notice; eventually we will only keep a rolling history of one year or less…previously, you could find a list of everything you ever requested through ILL.”

Polly Thistlethwaite, chief librarian at the Graduate Center, said that while working at a different library, an NYPD officer approached her. The officer said he was looking for the Zodiac Killer and wanted information of users who checked out certain astrological books.

Image credit: Pixabay

Image credit: Pixabay

National Security

It’s becoming increasingly common for libraries to receive requests for information. Librarians around the country push back against national security letters, which is dangerous since these letters come with a gag order. In 2005, the FBI sent a national security letter to Library Connection in Connecticut.

The agency demanded the library’s reading records and hard drives, but the librarians resisted with so much vehemence that the government gave up. The American Library Association helped the Library Connection in this particular case, and condemned “the use of National Security Letters to demand any library records.”

Since the Patriot Act, using the law to obtain library records has increased, forcing librarians to experiment with data security. Purging records is something that most private companies wouldn’t do, but libraries are different. Thistlethwaite said that the decision to purge wasn’t that urgent. Rather, it was a best practice, one that other companies should adopt.

Every year, hackers attack dozens of companies. Last year after the Ashley Madison hack, the archives showed that even when the company charged customers to purge their data, not only did the company NOT fulfill that agreement, but it used customers’ credit cards to pay for it.

And when hackers attacked the US Office of Personnel Management, the database had records going back 30 years. It even kept information on government employees that left or died.

Image credit: Pixabay

Image credit: Pixabay

Moving Forward

Interlibrary loans form a record of departures from standard patterns of lending. This is something that law enforcement analysts look for. Alison Macrina, founder and director of the Library Freedom Project, said:

“It seems like it’s a more interesting data trail. It’s a book you wanted so bad that you went to special lengths to get it, and we know how intelligence agencies pay attention to breaks in patterns.”

Libraries are experimenting with different ways to keep patron privacy the most important goal. The Library Freedom Project encourages libraries to operate as exit nodes in the Tor network. The Department of Homeland Security tried to recruit local police to shut down the project at a New Hampshire library. They were unsuccessful.

Generally, librarians have no problem with local law enforcement. They realize that the town police and the town library are part of the same precinct. But when it comes to federal authority, most librarians don’t hesitate to “having an adversarial relationship.”

Macarina says, “They’ve antagonized us so much. Ashcroft called us ‘hysterical’, and it’s a profession mostly of women, so, you know. That didn’t go over very well.”