April 19, 2018

Getting Real About Privacy: Confidentiality, digital literacy, and beyond | Editorial

Rebecca T. MillerWe 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.

While we may sincerely subscribe to the principle, in practice, it seems as if effective steps to safeguard privacy take a backseat to basically everything else.

“Privacy is essential to the exercise of free speech, free thought, and free association,” says the American Library Association’s Interpretation of the Library Bill of Rights. That core value should now fuel the conversation of how libraries can help our communities cope with ever-changing realities around privacy.

This all struck me on the subway ride home after watching Citizenfour, Laura Poitras’s documentary about Edward Snowden’s leak of classified documents that revealed the widespread collection of personal data by the National Security Agency (NSA). Overall, I wanted more focus on the chilling effects of such surveillance. No doubt, however, those leaks helped to put privacy on the national stage in an important way at a technological and cultural moment that makes privacy harder than ever to protect.

The recent Pew report “Public Perceptions of Privacy and Security in the Post-Snowden Era” explores the connection between the revelations of that federal data collection and how people think about their own privacy. “It may be the age of the overshare,” says LJ tech editor Matt Enis, “but I think even most young people who are active on social media have plenty of things that they wouldn’t post on Facebook (regardless of their privacy settings), because they want to decrease the likelihood of their broadest social network seeing a picture or a tasteless joke, or even just knowing their real opinion on an issue. There are things that they might want to share with a close friend but not their parents (or the NSA, obviously).”

It is disheartening that so many seem to have given up on expecting privacy. “They feel like they’ve lost control over their information to the government and to corporations. Many of them don’t like it, but they don’t think there’s anything they can do about it,” adds Enis. “That’s where libraries come in. To make sure [people] have the right tools and understand the stakes.”

Libraries are in a rare and critical space when it comes to the understanding and protection of privacy in our society. Protecting patron records is essential, but it is not enough. Data mining enables a new threat to emerge from beyond libraries. What if, for example, Enis says, “the local cops start harassing you every time a car is stolen because a corroborative algorithm says that your online behavior, and relationship history, in aggregate, fits the profile of a car thief”? It doesn’t have to go this far to be a problem.

We absolutely must continue to advocate for governmental policies that defend the right to privacy across the spectrum of our analog and digital spaces, but that’s not sufficient either. Librarians can’t cede the issue to the political process. Life is happening to our patrons too quickly for that to be a responsible reaction. Instead, we must deepen the work of fostering a culture that values and respects privacy. Different people want or can tolerate different privacy levels. They should be empowered to understand their own place on the privacy continuum, so to speak, and we must actively educate patrons on how to protect their privacy if they so choose.

We must inform people of what their daily options represent for their privacy in more meaningful language than a boilerplate click-thru agreement. We have a role in helping them to make informed decisions about opting in or out within digital and commercial environments. Librarians can help patrons find credible information, place it in context, and sort the signal from the noise in the clamor of privacy statements and terms of service with which the average web user is faced. We can curate a nonoverwhelming selection of tools to protect privacy if necessary and make them visible at the point of need, without waiting for patrons to ask—or to show up to a class they may not know they want.

Ask yourself if you are doing enough to help your community grapple with this privacy crisis. Then, answer by doing what librarians do best: build literacy, this time around the changing landscape of privacy.


This article was published in Library Journal. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

Rebecca T. Miller About Rebecca T. Miller

Rebecca T. Miller (miller@mediasourceinc.com) is Editorial Director, Library Journal and School Library Journal.



  1. Lisa Hinchliffe says:

    Appreciate this thoughtful essay. The ALA Code of Ethics also calls for the provision of high quality service and personalization/recommendation/etc. seems to be one aspect of high quality information service. I find myself pondering if there a parallel obligation to use data that is being collected to improve and provide quality service? As with many ethical principles, there is inherent tension it seems.