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.
Teaching from the real world is pure joy most of the time. Students love it when they see something from class in the pixels of library journals and magazines, the mass media, or the technology press. Most of the time, discussing change while it’s happening is a visceral lesson in professional adaptability and continuous learning. However, I could have done without having to teach technology-related privacy issues to my “Digital Trends, Tools, and Debates” students in the shadow of the NSA’s newly-revealed surveillance practices.
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.