overprivileging privacy?

Since the passage of the Patriot Act in 2001 librarians have become increasingly expert at protecting information freedoms from an unprecedented degree of governmental scrutiny – aptly described by K. G. Schneider as “antispeech legislation” in 2002, the Patriot Act was reinstated in 2006 with few revisions.

In libraries, privacy is paramount. We offer open access to information and in so doing hope to inspire confidence in our user public that their inquiries, patron records, circulation histories, and Web activity will remain confidential. Our ability to promise these things, while slightly improved in recent years due to small victories over the Patriot Act, has been largely compromised by this piece of legislation.

The response from our profession has been to develop an effective “head them off at the pass” mentality about the eventuality of a subpoena or National Security Letter – that is, we tend to purge personal records as quickly as they are created in order to preserve the information freedoms of library users from outside abuse.

As a technology-focused reference librarian who is engaged my fair share of conference attending and blog trolling, I’ve noticed a glaring side effect of our ready-for-the-wolves position on information freedoms – librarians have also become expert at tearing apart every new communication technology and program for its potential to store sensitive user information.

My feeling is that when it comes to virtual services this tendency is sometimes misdirected, as it is in direct conflict with the social technologies we increasingly use to communicate with patrons. By definition these social technologies are built on personal connections and virtual communities which thrive on information that is to some degree privileged. I respect the collective effort to maintain user privacy as much as the next librarian, but am often left questioning whether we as a profession put too much energy into worrying about privacy when it comes to public services and library technology development. Recent roundtable discussions, meetings, and Q&A sessions at conference presentations I’ve attended or given have all echoed with variations of this persistent question – “does it/you store chat transcripts?” This speaks to the reality of our situation, but I believe the question can be put in better perspective – that is, second in priority to service innovations and user needs/expectations.

Although it’s a valid issue, focusing too closely on this issue obscures potential questions about the promise of new modes of communication. Furthermore, I believe that perpetuates a subtle and counterproductive culture of fear that pervades the discourse of our profession. My experience is that every communication application out there has options for how and when information is stored – therefore, they offer librarians the ability to create their own flexible in-house solutions to data storage concerns. See Mary Minow And Paul Neuhaus’ working paper Is Privacy Working? Plannning For Stronger Privacy Measures Than Security Through Obscurity for an excellent treatment of the practicalities of electronic user privacy – although a bit tricky, it is not overly difficult to meet this challenge where virtual reference is concerned.

As librarians continue to develop services using 2.0 and social technologies such as Facebook, IM, Skype, Meebo, and others, we should accordingly adjust our expectations of privacy while using these applications. They are all to some extent viral technologies that thrive on shared personal information and what Skype manager Sten Tamkivi calls “presence data“. Users offer the information they feel comfortable offering, and they likewise have the option of inviting libraries into their networks if they are interested in doing so. This personal connection to users is one of the most obvious benefits of using social technologies in library services. The library becomes part of a user’s virtual community as well as their physical one, and that association implicitly carries some degree of voluntary personal association and detail exchange.

Protecting libraries as safe public spaces and librarians as enablers of free inquiry is essential to our profession. That said, I think we have a responsibility not to be so easily hamstrung by our fears of outside scrutiny that it creates a barrier to the development of innovative services. Librarians have developed a sixth sense about privacy concerns, and as a result we now excel at strategizing around this nagging national problem. Although the electronic privacy debate should definitely continue I think it can be put into better perspective where some technologies are concerned.

2 thoughts on “overprivileging privacy?

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  1. Thanks for voicing this!

    I’m the sort of person that tears into poor privacy practices and especially as regards to webrary 2.0, and virtual reference (it’s my only job), though I hope not in a knee-jerk kind of way. Few of us seem willing to think and act critically about this issue. We are mostly either mute on privacy or mute on change.

    I don’t think privacy concerns are as much a barrier to innovation as the lack of expertise to build our own tools. It’s not hard to code a chat widget for a web page. It’s hard for libraries to employ people with the skills and interest to do it. It’s not hard to use a script to build an RSS feed – it’s just much more convenient to send things to Twitter.

    So privacy wise, we have to trust that a third party (AOL, OCLC) to keep a conversation confidential or adopt a laissez-faire attitude and place full responsibility of privacy with patrons. And the discussion usually ends there.

    But I think we have other choices, they just require a lot more work. We can use third party tools to prove the viability of services before we work on building our own. We can talk to patrons about privacy, and most importantly, we can listen to what they actually have to say.

    I think your point that many online services “thrive on shared personal information” needs to be echoed around the library world, so thanks again.

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