All people, regardless of origin, age, background, or views, possess a right to privacy and confidentiality in their library use. Libraries should advocate for, educate about, and protect people’s privacy, safeguarding all library use data, including personally identifiable information.
– Article VII Library Bill of Rights
The right to privacy is one of the foundations upon which our libraries are built. Privacy is one of the key reasons libraries are such a trusted part of every community. In a world that thrives on surveillance and data mining, libraries provide a safe place for users of all ages to seek out information free from unreasonable intrusion into or surveillance of their use. As libraries across the world have shut their doors due to the COVID-19 pandemic, we face the challenge of upholding our commitment to not monitor, track, or profile an individual’s library use beyond our operational needs.
Confronted with a global health emergency and civil unrest, now more than ever we must ensure that our libraries continue to provide uninterrupted, safe, and confidential access to our services, in accordance with our core values and the laws that protect the confidentiality of library users’ information.
As libraries begin to reopen, many are faced with the possibility that they will be required to conduct health screenings and contact tracing that may potentially impact library users’ privacy and right to access library services. Libraries that are required to perform health screenings prior to allowing entrance should avoid collecting and storing any medical data and do such screenings in private. The Choose Privacy Every Day website has guidance for libraries on how to do health screenings while maintaining user privacy and confidentiality.
We believe contact tracing has serious implications for libraries. Civil liberties organizations have strong concerns about the potential threat to individual rights posed by the collection of sensitive data that discloses information about individuals’ movements and their social, sexual, religious, and political associations. There is also concern about the potential abuse of any collected data for commercial gain, discrimination, and stigmatization of marginalized groups. A public health surveillance program implemented in the current situation could become permanent, resulting in an irrevocable loss of privacy and civil liberties.
This moment is an opportunity for libraries to step up and reinforce their communities’ faith in them as information safe havens. Instilling the right to privacy into library services is an act of empathy and kindness that we can provide to all of our users. Libraries seeking more guidance can visit the Choose Privacy Every Day website’s Protecting Privacy in a Pandemic Resource Guide and sign up to receive regular updates on privacy-related topics.
Erin Berman is the Chair of the American Library Association’s Intellectual Freedom Committee’s Privacy Subcommittee. She currently works as a Division Director for Alameda County Library.