Privacy in our society is being undermined with a daily intensity that may be unmatched in history. The confluence of compromises in our digital lives and the political arena chips away at our sense of what needs to be private and risks codifying a culture in which privacy is not a right but a state hard-won by continual effort or, worse, a state only available to those wealthy enough to protect themselves.
Threats to privacy are nothing new. We have long been attuned to concerns that the “man” is watching, and libraries have always been key in the fight for this basic freedom. Mentor and long-term confrontationalist John Berry reminds me of the political upheaval after the realization of widespread phone tapping in search of radicals in the 1960s. We are trained, in a sense, to be alert to unwanted observation of our actions and fear it, early in our lives: hell, I tease my kids with the threat of the eyes on the back of my own head.
However, we now find ourselves witnessing the steady reveal of violations by the National Security Agency (NSA). The New York Times’s “N.S.A. Able To Foil Basic Safeguards of Privacy on the Web” (9/5/13) is chilling, not to mention infuriating. Its news undermines our very sense of safety when it comes to basic digital communication. Web searches, phone calls, emails, texts, you name it—they are exposed.
What we do every day in digital exchanges is supposed to be protected—right? This couldn’t be further from the reality of most connected people living in America today. The NSA appears to be violating our privacy, but we also do it to ourselves, trading off a level of privacy for convenience in many of our daily digital transactions.
I, like many of my pragmatic peers, log onto Facebook and other social networking sites, bent on little more than sharing a few pictures for family or the briefest of insights from a day’s reading. We hope for entertainment, interaction, and even friendship. We get that sometimes. But along the way we are met with contextual advertising and changing privacy policies that I would bet most of us do not deeply evaluate before going about our business. We live in a commercialized world and grok that our field of vision is likely to contain advertising. However, when shoe-related ads appear on my screen right after I buy shoes on a completely different site, for example, it creeps me out. It’s automated, some argue: we’ll use it or ignore it. It’s disturbing, I say.
I’m not alone in this perspective. Most Americans try to protect their privacy online, according to “Anonymity, Privacy, and Security Online.” Sixty-eight percent of respondents feel their privacy is not protected by the law, and 59 percent feel they should be able to be anonymous in their Internet use. A full 86 percent, according to the report, “have taken steps online to remove or mask their digital footprints.” Few of us want to be taken advantage of. Too many of us are, even if only via the increasingly narrow options offered to us in the marketing feed in our “networks.”
Ideally, I should know how to protect myself. But it’s unrealistic to expect the general population to have the legal and technical know-how to navigate this new era. Pretty much all of us, even the opt-outs, need help understanding this new arena of self-expression and information exchange. At my most insecure, I am cautious about what I post, purchase little via the web, and consider logging off entirely. I’d rather be able to act and share with confidence that I am not somehow at risk. And, increasingly, opting out is a luxury. Internet use is a growing requirement for finding a job, government benefits, and other essential services. In many white-collar positions, even social media use is expected by employers.
Enter the library, long the defender of patron privacy. At its core, the profession is about enabling everyone to discover what they need to live and learn without anxiety over discovery or cross-examination. This ethic encouraged the small but excellent Floyd Memorial Library in Greenport, NY, where I serve as a trustee, to introduce a self-check station. The clerks could have handled the traffic, but the self-check kiosk introduced an option for those who might not want to be observed in their reading choices. It also illustrated the library’s commitment to confidentiality. It’s critical that patrons know that libraries are with them on this, from high-level initiatives at the American Library Association and institutional infrastructure that continues to protect patron data to services such as digital literacy training that bolster patrons’ ability to protect themselves when no one else is.