by William Marden
Chair, ALA-IFC Privacy Subcommittee
Five months ago, when the members of ALA’s Privacy Subcommittee met to decide on this year’s “Choose Privacy Week” (CPW) theme, it’s a fair bet to say that only a tiny percentage of the general public had ever heard of Cambridge Analytica, Alexandr Kogan, the SCL Group, or of a fairly-obscure app called ‘thisisyourdigitallife’.
And yet, there were warnings about Cambridge Analytica’s program as early as December 2015 when the London Guardian first reported on this data-collection program and its integration with Facebook as part of Ted Cruz’s 2016 bid for the U.S. presidency. Michael Zimmer, a University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee associate professor and a member of ALA’s Privacy Subcommittee, was quoted by the Guardian about why the use of such data was highly problematic. “It’s one thing for a marketer to try to predict if people like Coke or Pepsi,” said Zimmer, “but it’s another thing for them to predict things that are much more central to our identity and what’s more personal in how I interact with the world in terms of social and cultural issues.”
In the wake of Mark Zuckerberg’s Congressional testimony last week and the related explosion of public interest in how online personal data is collected, stored, shared, used and sometimes misused, this year’s CPW theme—“Big Data is Watching You”—could not be more perfectly timed.
In the library community especially, the right of library users to keep private their use of library resources has traditionally long been a hallmark of the ALA’s principles, embedded in its “Library Bill of Rights” and actively promoted by ALA’s Intellectual Freedom Committee and its Privacy Subcommittee.
But those rights and protections are increasingly being challenged by the use of “big data”: library patron information that is bundled up, aggregated and usually (but not always) anonymized for varied purposes including trend analyses, grant funding, and reporting to local governments.
Has this new era of data collection become another form of surveillance? Is the aggregated data of library users truly anonymous? Can we collect such data and still guarantee the minimum standards of privacy for our library users?
We kicked off this year’s Choose Privacy Week on April 16 with a great webinar called “A Practical Guide to Privacy Audits”, presented by Erin Berman and Julie Oborny, both of San Jose Public Library. You can see the entire recorded webinar online here.
In addition, there are web and social media graphics and programming resources for libraries available through the Choose Privacy Week website to help librarians, library users, and community members engage in a conversation about “big data” in the library and its impact on individuals’ right to privacy.
We also have a fantastic set of blog posts planned for Choose Privacy Week that explore the issues around Big Data and promote methods and technologies to help guide librarians in knowing how to responsibly use these data-gathering techniques:
- Matt Beckstrom, Systems Librarian at the Lewis & Clark Library in Helena, Montana, on “Patron Privacy and Data Storage.”
- Erin Berman, Innovations Manager for the San José Public Library, “Big Brother is Watching You: The Ethical Role of Libraries and Big Data.”
- Monica Bulger, researcher at Data & Society, on student data and the impact on school librarians.
- Jason Griffey, affiliate fellow, Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society, “Libraries as Private Spaces.”
- Eric Hellman, president, Free E-book Foundation and founder, Unglue.it and T.J. Lamanna, chair, New Jersey Intellectual Freedom Committee and emerging technologies librarian at the Cherry Hill Public Library, “Your Library Organization is Watching You.”
- Sarah Houghton, director of the San Rafael Public Library, “The Challenge of Balancing Customer Service with Privacy.”
- Jessamyn West, community technologist and librarian, Vermont Mutual Aid Society, “Practical Privacy – Helping People Make Realistic Privacy Choices for Their Real Lives.”
Our CPW theme will continue on into ALA’s Annual Conference in New Orleans where there will be at least two sessions focusing on the topic of Big Data in libraries:
Big Data in Libraries: Friend or Foe?, Saturday, June 23, 1:00—2:00 pm
Defense Against the Dark Arts: Techniques and Practices to Protect User Privacy
When Conducting Data Analytics, Monday, June 25, 9:00—10:00 am
Finally, the Choose Privacy Week website will soon be undergoing a name change. It order to emphasize the site’s year-round importance and its usefulness as a first-stop resource, we are changing the name to “Choose Privacy Every Day.” Not to worry, though, “Choose Privacy Week” will continue to live on as a featured segment, headlining the website the first week in May each and every year.
What is your library doing for Choose Privacy Week?