The FBI is monitoring computer use in at least one public library–and probably in libraries across the country. Bill Olds, a reporter for The Hartford Courant, discovered the Feds have bugged the computers at the Hartford Public Library, in an effort to get leads to terrorist organizations.

The FBI installs special software on the computers that allows them to track your internet use and read your e-mail messages. Members of the public who use the library haven’t been informed about this. And Olds says it’s not just the computers–library book circulation lists are also accessible to the government.

Librarians have been told not to reveal this information. When asked if the FBI is bugging her library, librarian Mary W. Billings says, "I cannot answer that question." But she does say this: "The library is now working on a public notice that it can’t guarantee that there isn’t third-party monitoring" for people who use its computers.

When the FBI uses a court order to gain access to library computers or a list people who have borrowed certain books, librarians aren’t allowed to tell you, and they face a federal penalty if they do. This means that librarians, whose job is to give out information, now have to learn to withhold it.

What exactly is the FBI looking for? Is it dangerous for a student to use the computer to look up information on al-Qaeda, Saudi Arabia, Iraq or Islam, or take out books on these subjects? If a student is writing a paper on terrorism, he’ll need to check out the terrorists’ point of view in order to give a balanced report, but this doesn’t mean he thinks they’re right or wants to join their organization. And al-Qaeda has enough money to buy its agents their own computers, so it’s doubtful they’d risk going to a library to do research or send encrypted e-mail, although perhaps an independent agent, such as the Shoe Bomber, might do such a thing.

This kind of bugging can quickly become a form of censorship. Is the FBI interested in people who are politically left-wing, who think drugs should be legalized, who want to defeat the current government in the next election, or who don?t agree with its conservative religious values? Is your library bugged? There’s no way to find out: librarians aren’t allowed to tell you, but you can assume it is.

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