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Mandatory Contact Tracing Measures at NLB Libraries should be Abolished

(This is a petition to NLB regarding its SARS control tracing measures, which I have talked about here and here.)

Recently, the National Library Board (NLB) instituted a new measure to all its branches, in an effort to make contact tracing easier should there be a cluster of SARS infections originating in a national library. While previous "Contact Bowl" efforts at supermarkets, cinemas and restaurants involved asking patrons to voluntarily leave their particulars behind, the NLB requires that all library visitors who did not borrow books to leave a record of their NRIC or student pass number.

There is a hidden implication to this policy of only requiring non-borrowers to leave their particulars behind - that the NLB will get the particulars of the rest of the people (i.e. those who did borrow books) through their borrowing records.

I think this policy is laudable in being pro-active and cautious in the light of a few cases of irresponsible behaviour from some Singaporeans in not getting treatment for SARS promptly, or violating their home quarantine. However, the policy represents too grave a threat to the privacy of library users, for a questionable gain in the safety and security today, and which may lead to undesirable consequences later on. I believe the NLB should abolish the rule, or at least change it to become voluntary.

This quote from Benjamin Franklin is useful in explaining why I think this:

They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.

Reasons for Abolishing this Rule

1. Questionable benefit towards fighting SARS

So far, those who have violated home quarantine orders, or did not seek prompt treatment at Tan Tock Seng Hospital or went doctor-hopping, have not visited public places like national libraries, certainly not as walking biological weapons, infecting the surrounding people with SARS wherever they go. I believe it is highly unlikely that any SARS carrier (exhibiting symptoms) will infect anyone in public places. Although I cannot predict the behaviour of all SARS patients in the future, I believe that the symptoms of SARS such as a high fever of 38 degrees Celsius will severely debilitate the patients, and certainly they would not be visiting libraries.

In the present dismal economic climate, many organisations want to assure their patrons or visitors that they have done the necessary steps to prevent the spread of SARS on their premises. This includes taking the temperatures of their staff and cleaning the premises more regularly. I am deeply worried about organisations that go one more step down the slippery slope by implementing paranoid measures that make them seem effective and responsible, such as the NLB rule. These measures are taken entirely on the onus of the organisations, private or governmental, and hence there is a danger that those who do not agree with their effectiveness, and indeed are worried about their implications, have no way to opt out of them.

2. Violation of Library users' freedom in visiting libraries without being tracked

In our society, we have a strong suspicion of people who insist that certain information, such as the places we go, remain private and confidential. We think that they must be doing something wrong, hence having something to hide from the scrutiny of society, and the government protecting that society.

This could not be more wrong with respect to the NLB's willingness to seek an accurate way of listing who visits their libraries at which times. I can see the logic behind NLB's move: If any library branch is pinpointed as a source of infection, and community leaders and the media reach out to the public to come forward and be quarantined for the sake of public health, there might be one or two Singaporeans who, for fear or other reasons, refuse to come forward, and this might perpetuate the spread of SARS. Hence NLB wants to be able to trace anyone who comes to their libraries so that this possibility is negated.

However, I argue that individual freedom and public health and order is a false dichotomy: It is not true that we can only have one without the other. For instance, regardless of the low crime rate in Singapore, some women are still accosted or robbed when walking in the streets at night. Should the government then enact a night curfew for women, for their own protection? Similarly, is the unlikely possibility of SARS spreading through a library worth sacrificing its users' confidentiality of where they have been?

The national libraries are public resources: repositories of books and other media allowing its users access to new worlds and ways of thinking. Libraries are a critical institution of our nation where Singaporeans can read and think, and challenge, discuss and create new viewpoints with others. However, the freedom to choose what to read and how to think about what one reads must come before people can participate without worrying about Big Brother looking over their shoulder. Our freedom of thought and action is protected by leaving some things private.

Library users have to have the bedrock of privacy, best codified into official practice or law, so that they can read what they want to read, wherever they want, without being harassed or questioned about their choices. We owe library users that much in respecting that in enriching themselves, they will not endanger society.

Of course if there is a strong criminal case against a library user, and his library records might be important evidence, the police should be allowed access. What I am arguing against is systematic wanton use of library records against users who have never done anything wrong, or, in this situation, have ever been in any kind of danger from SARS in library branches.

It is even more crucial for the NLB to do this because they have no equivalent in the private sector or among citizens. The NLB-operated chain of national libraries altogether have the largest collection of books in the country; the nearest to come after them are university and polytechnic libraries who restrict admission. In other words, there is simply no alternative for the general library user but the NLB - and hence they are a monopoly and any regulation they stipulate, warranted or not, has great effect on the book-reading population at large. If NTUC compulsorily demands our particulars, we could always go to Cold Storage or Shop-n-Save. If Shaw cinemas does the same, we could go to another cinema chain, or better still, forgo the movie. If NLB institutes harsh mandatory contact-tracing measures, there is nowhere else for library-goers to go to.

3. Possible violation of Library users' borrowing records for nefarious purposes

As I said earlier, it seems that NLB will track the borrowers with their borrowing records. I argue that this represents an even graver threat to the privacy and confidentiality of library users and what they borrow.

It is worse that it looks: library users are allowed to use other users' cards to borrow books. Hence, any investigation that looks into who went to which libraries, or who borrowed what books, will have to look into who used the library user's card to make the loans at the time. The NLB thus seems to have carte blanche in tracing not only who was in the library at that time - resulting in far-reaching probes that could involve family members, relatives, colleagues and friends. At best, no one is harmed in the long term, but wrongful incriminations seem likely to happen.

The NLB makes no legal guarantee towards its users that they will use their records responsibly and for the sole purpose of contact tracing, besides a glib "Trust us." There seems to be no qualms in using borrowing records, normally used for administrative purposes like tracking what books are borrowed or overdue, for other purposes. If there is no guarantee by the NLB on the sanctity of borrowing records, and the importance they have in indicating the borrowing habits of library users, future crises, real or manufactured, could lead the NLB, or parties with power over the NLB, to scrutinise borrowing records and unjustly incriminate library users.

This is not unheard of. In the US, the Patriot Act passed in 2001 allows the FBI to obtain library borrowing records by going to a secret court and merely certifying that the information they obtain may be relevant to an intelligence investigation. Librarians are even required by law to keep any such requests secret, or else they would be guilty of a crime themselves. Some librarians are rightfully worried about abuse of such powers that could lead to harassment or wrongful arrests, and have taken it upon themselves to destroy unnecessary records of their users promptly. They are not trying to obstruct the course of justice, or being unpatriotic. They believe that when the confidentiality of library users and what they read is broken, regardless of whether arrests turn out to be fortuitous and the right ones, society is irreparably harmed. Legitimate searches should only be allowed with a court order and probable cause shown, not for secretive investigations or harassment.


There is no legitimate need for systematic tracking of library users who visit national libraries, for SARS contact tracing or otherwise. Hence:

  1. The NLB can fight SARS by calling on its users and patrons to do the right thing, and not by infringing on everyone's privacy.
  2. The particulars of library-goers visiting national library branches should not be recorded in any way.
  3. The NLB should keep borrowing records only if necessary, like tracking borrowed books. Records of a person's reading habits over time, and which branches they went to, should be periodically purged, for instance, every month. This will ensure that no one, library staff or outsiders, gains access to them and uses them for unintended purposes.

Addendum - Alternative

As an alternative to mandatory contact tracing, the NLB can instead do temperature checks at its entrances, to ensure that anyone who displays symptoms of SARS (and could thus infect others) is not allowed to enter. This will ensure that SARS is not spread at libraries, over and above my observation that those down with SARS are unlikely to visit libraries, and that Singaporeans can be responsible about the health of themselves and others.