Privacy and the Library, Part II

This is Part II of a continuing series on privacy and libraries. Read Part I here.

“Lightning striking the Eiffel Tower – NOAA” by M.G. Loppe. Public Domain. Wikmedia Commons.

On November 13th, a coordinated series of terrorists shook Paris (and the suburb of Saint Dénis).  I received a call from my mother the morning after the attacks, asking about my several French friends.  Lucky for them, my friends are not Parisians and were hours away from the attacks.  But many people weren’t so lucky, and this tragedy continues (and will continue) to affect individuals and whole communities.

In the wake of the Paris attacks, discussions of privacy began to emerge. Intelligence officials from several countries and organizations noted that monitoring for terrorist plots has become increasingly difficult due to the increased use of encrypted communications.  Some call “backdoors” into encrypted communication software, and other means of infiltrating private citizens’ communications.

These people hope to prevent terrorist attacks by stopping the terrorists during the planning stage.  It’s a noble idea – and it very well could save lives.  But we must weigh if that tactic will be wholly successful – and even if it has a good success rate, if we are willing to sacrifice our privacy for such a result.

I don’t really think I can make a final decision for either the whole world, or even a country.  But I will say that, as a librarian, I have interesting insights into this privacy debate.

Libraries are in a unique position to monitor their patrons.  We often have data on where they live, their phone numbers, their names, etc.  We have the ability to record what they read (at least what they check out), what videos they watch (either via streaming or on the library computers).  The software we use could even tell how long they spent on reading ebooks, what pages, if the patron browsed or read deeply.

Even with all this potential to monitor our patrons, libraries refuse to anything but the bare minimum for library security (basically, making sure the materials are returned to allow other patrons to use that material).  In my position of acquisitions graduate assistant, I have already been in meetings (and other various long conversations) with vendors about how it’s illegal and/or ethically dubious for their software to collect certain forms of information about our patrons – and it’s certainly inappropriate to then give the library that information because we cannot legally or ethically record that information.

Librarians have decided that monitoring people’s information use is not ethical (and certain states in the United States, at least, have decided it’s not legal).  When considering further monitoring of citizens (by public or private institutions), perhaps consider what and why libraries collect – and if that’s somehow relevant to how other institutions are collecting.


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