The privacy paradox of public libraries
“Hey Jeroen, I’m connecting you with Luke Swarthout from NYPL! He has some questions about strategies for libraires with regards to privacy – would you be willing to share your thoughts? ”
Ilona Kish, director of Public Libraries 2030, recently sent me this e-mail. The conversation with Luke (director of Digital Policy, New York Public Library) was a moment of two minds thinking as one. The topic of discussion was the imbalance between the broad use of technology in libraries and safeguarding library users’ privacy. Ilona’s idea was that we could find each other in that. And that was right.
You are no longer what you read
The image that libraries stand firm for the privacy protection of their users stems from the analogous past. Luke outlined that at that time it was up to the librarian to prevent patron’s preferences and lending history from becoming public. Call it professional confidentiality. The lack of a system in which personal data was stored made it easy to ensure the sovereignty of patrons.
The image of a safe haven for our patrons is one that we still happily propagate. But it is no longer that simple. With the use of digital library systems, the use of browsers and other software from major US tech companies on public PC’s and the use of social media for online marketing, we have lost control. Whereas at the time you kept the reading preferences and lending history private at all times, today they are only the tip of the iceberg. And if you are not careful, as a library you may also help to make that data accessible.
Even then, however, it is now known that the power of data collection does not lie in unique incidental personal data, but in combining small pieces of scattered information. As a library with the best intentions you might still be anonymizing lending data and personal details, but the profiling throught online tracking paints a much more detailed picture. And as a well-meaning librarian you are powerless, because the management of that data is not up to you.
Within the digital citizenship program for Dutch public libraries the aim is to promote critical awareness for all target groups. This obliges libraries to also ask critical questions to themselves and to each other. Current affairs last week showed that this is happening far too little (yes, I believe that the case of libraries normalizing to collaborate with Google is also questionable). In libraries the decision making for digital application is still mainly determined by costs and ease of use.
However, you might expect more from a public institution such as a library. Despite the increased use of technology and the challenges that this presents, we still adhere to the principle that we stand for the privacy of our patrons. In a sense this is paradoxical, all the more so if you do pay attention to programming around privacy, but do not always make defensible choices at an institutional level (the systems we use). Wouldn’t libraries much rather use a non-Googe statistics application? Are the trackers blocked by default on public computers? And is there at least a choice of different (privacy-friendly) web browsers? I would like to see the description as propagated by the Dutch Public Stack coalition applied in public libraries:
“In the Public Stack, we see the “user” as a citizen in a democratic society – not as a consumer in a business model or as a subject of a state. The other layers of Public Stack all play a role in shaping this relationship, which determines whose interests are served by technology.”
In order to simplify the discussion about the privacy paradox and to put it more broadly on the agenda, we were also able to help each other. For example, I was able to refer Luke to the Public Stack principle and their practical and idea recommendations. We agreed to make another online appointment in a few weeks. I see a knowledge session on the privacy paradox on the near horizon!
This blog was originally published on the website of Fers.