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We Librarians Must Reexamine Our Position on Privacy
Volume 42, Number 3 - May/June 2018

Some of the most important issues confronting society today are information issues. Thus, it’s time for librarians to take center stage and lead the way in addressing these issues. But that’s not happening, and it’s not going to happen unless we up our game and rethink some of our core principles. One of these is our approach to safeguarding personal privacy.

We librarians bill ourselves as strong advocates of personal privacy. Librarians in the public sector often destroy information about the actions of library users, like borrowing histories, in pursuit of their commitment to defend user privacy. Some of them destroy all personally identifiable data about who borrowed a book the very day the book is returned. The irony is apparently lost on them that they are members of a profession that champions the value of information, while carrying out a radical program of information destruction. Not long ago, a member of the American Library Association’s Washington office staff was quoted in the Washington Post—accurately, she assures me—as approving this practice. But it’s badly out of step with society, and it’s an unrealistic response to the challenges we, and society, face. Clinging to it hurts our profession, our community members, and society as a whole.

There are three reasons why the current practice of destroying user information is misguided.

The first is, it’s really a joke to pretend that deleting library records alone is an effective safeguard of privacy in modern society. We’re living in a time when our appliances, our cars, even our houses, are spying on us and relaying every detail of our lives to the great marketing databases in the cloud. It’s reported that Google Home and Amazon Echo may be listening and recording conversations without being deliberately activated. So, to the sophisticated corporate or government snoop, library data is all but irrelevant. They can get what they need lots of other ways. The recent Facebook/Cambridge Analytica scandal has amply demonstrated how many opportunities there are for malefactors to misuse personal data without resorting to the compromise of library user data. Thus, our commitment needs to extend far beyond deleting library use records.

The second is, this extreme position prevents us from offering all kinds of useful services to our community. Here’s one simple example. My local public library tells me that it deletes the record that I’ve borrowed a given book the day after I’ve returned it. Because it does that, it is unable to offer me a service that I would find valuable: keeping a record for my own use of the books I’ve borrowed. So, I’m forced to do this in other ways, which are more burdensome to me. And that’s just for starters. Think of the many valuable services that could be built on that record: recommender services, communities of interest, and more. Moreover, my library doesn’t even provide a clear statement on this in its privacy and data retention policies. I had to submit a question in order to find out. This isn’t an isolated instance—the combination of opacity and restrictiveness in data management policies is widespread. Last fall, I assigned my students the task of looking for privacy policies on public library websites, and they came back with a wide range of results. Yes, they found some examples of good practice out there, but they found an appalling array of bad practices too.

The third problem is the most serious. In dictating what shall be done, and not done, with my borrowing history, my local library is really playing the same game as Equifax, Google, Amazon, and all the corporate exploiters of our information: They are saying, “Your data is our data, and we will decide what to do with it.” If we truly believe in empowering our communities, then the principle should be, “Your data is your data, and we will facilitate your right to decide, and carry out your wishes.” And not with some click-through license, but with real options that give community members real control. For a profession that claims to be all about empowering the members of our communities, we’re really not being very forward-thinking when it comes to empowering people to make choices about their personal information.

Unfortunately, the current professional guidance on patron privacy and data management is both redundant and vague. Overwhelmingly, our profession emphasizes restriction and deletion; there’s hardly a mention of the opportunities to use patron data constructively or of the need to empower patrons to control their own data.

When have we ever asked our community members how they feel about the retention or destruction of their data? When have we given them a choice? Enabling our members to control their data does not mean compromising our commitment to privacy. Our duty to safeguard the personal information that we are stewards of in no way changes; our fundamental ethical commitment remains constant.

Recent research refutes the contention that the public is unwilling to share personal data with service providers. Instead, it has been found that people are willing to have their personal data retained when it will benefit them, but they want transparency, and they want control. The aim of all entities that collect personal information therefore should not be to make unilateral rules for the destruction of data, but to be transparent, to give users real control, and, above all, to avoid being “creepy.”

Here’s where libraries could be real leaders in society. What other institution has the goodwill and respect to take on this issue? What if our profession created a model policy and detailed practices that gave individuals real control of their own data? What if we all followed those leading libraries that already offer their members opportunities to receive enhanced services? What if we actively promoted our work and advocated to spread it? Here’s what I think would happen: We would establish ourselves as leaders of society in enriching personal freedom and privacy.

Let’s get to work!

David Shumaker is clinical associate professor in the Department of Library and Information Science, Catholic University of America.


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