Armed with a passion for privacy and knowledge of surveillance technologies, Alison Macrina helps fellow librarians prevent prying eyes from spying on their patrons’ online movements.
We need to reexamine how we talk about privacy. It’s hard to go a day right now without seeing a major article addressing privacy concerns—be it about personal financial data; the ability to track student progress and report it to parents, teachers, or advisors; new Facebook settings; the stalled USA Freedom Act; and so on. The alarm has been sounded, but the prevailing lack of response is still unnerving.
My last column addressed some of the tensions that underlie the idea of “not letting the perfect be the enemy of the good” in library leadership, and at the end I promised that my next would deal in a similar way with trying to balance the occasional tension between problems that are truly important and those that are merely “noisy.” However, an issue has come up in the meantime that is more timely and urgent, so I’m putting off the “noisy vs. important” column until next time. This month I want to address the issue of patron privacy in the context of the recent revelations about privacy incursions in the latest version of Adobe Digital Editions.
I heard a couple of very interesting presentations this spring given by extremely smart people on ways that libraries can do more with data to improve the user experience, help students succeed, and make a case for the value of libraries. Last week, a group of brave speakers decided to start their slide presentation with a cow and conclude with a grilled steak, asking us to consider whether it was time to finally tackle this library sacred cow: privacy.
I’ve finally dumped Gmail forever. Though the process took quite some time—moving mailing-list subscriptions, changing profiles on websites that knew me by my Gmail address, extracting the messages I needed to keep, and similar chores—the relief of a little more freedom from Google’s privacy-invasive data mining has been well worth the trouble for me. I want as little as possible to do with a company that allegedly thinks trawling and keeping behavior-profile data from college students’ school-mandated, school-purchased email accounts without notice or consent is in some way ethical.
At the next Library Technology Conference in the Twin Cities in March, there won’t be one session on privacy-protecting measures for library computers—there will be two. These aren’t the only sessions of their type I’ve seen advertised lately. I’m delighted to see information professionals stepping up to teach each other how best to protect ourselves and our patrons from unwarranted invasion of privacy by digital means. As it happens, another prime opportunity to register opposition to digital invasion of privacy will arrive on February 11. Several of the best advocacy organizations in the tech industry are joining forces with prominent websites and anyone else going their way for The Day We Fight Back.
A great deal of my professional life is spent trying to make a body of law from the analog age, the 1976 Copyright Act, fit into the digital world. It is a difficult task, but today I want to discuss a different body of law from the same era—the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act of 1974 (FERPA), aka the Buckley amendment—and how it can fit with the new activities we are engaged in in the online age.