Privacy and the Library
Those who staff libraries generally know about the need (and how to take measures) to protect their patrons’ privacy; the ALA code of ethics and associated documents provided by ALA provide excellent clarity on this issue. The patrons who frequent our libraries, however, are generally not aware of how to protect their own privacy in a culture of information overload. Thus, as information professionals, it becomes our responsibility to convey the importance of this issue, and address it in our programming and instruction. Toward this end, the ALA has developed the ongoing program and resources of Choose Privacy Week.
If you haven’t already, I encourage you to spend some of your precious time examining the pages of the Choose Privacy Week website at www.privacyrevolution.org; these pages describe the relationship of privacy to intellectual freedom and the issues of patron privacy far more eloquently and concisely than I could for you here. After all, providing resources is what we do, and we are so fortunate to be able to count on our professional organization to produce and promote the kinds of resources that are so complete and significant in their ability to help us frame our interactions with our patrons.
Another go-to resource that I have found significant in helping me frame this issue in my own mind is the New York Times; there have been a number of articles recently that illustrate the ways that online resources can be both our salvation and our undoing. Two articles that serve as interesting companion pieces to one another, and which appeared within days of each other at the beginning of this year, are Bill Keller’s “Dealing With Assange and the WikiLeaks Secrets,” published in the New York Times Magazine on January 26, and Scott Shane’s “Spotlight Again Falls on Web Tools and Change” from the January 29 “Week in Review”.
While Keller’s Assange/WikiLeaks article is a fascinating insider look at journalistic process, it also serves to illuminate the “tension between a newspaper’s obligation to inform and the government’s responsibility to protect” as well as the facets of the First Amendment that provide controversy in practice. Shane’s article is a powerful discussion of how “the same Web tools that so many Americans use to keep up with college pals and post passing thoughts” have been used where no democracy or First Amendment guarantees exist, and how these tools can serve to either topple or aid despotic governments.
We can see how, as Keller states, “the Internet transformed the landscape of journalism, creating...easier access to audiences...a new infrastructure for sharing and vetting information and a diminished respect for notions of privacy and secrecy.” Keller reminds us, however, that this occurred “Long before WikiLeaks was born.”
Keller’s attempts to address online questions from readers about the WikiLeaks issue found some segments of the public responding, “How dare you censor this material? What are you hiding? Post everything now!” and others with “Who needs this? How dare you? What gives you the right?”. This divided public is our public, the one that enters our libraries every day, and this divided stance regarding privacy issues in civic life is indicative of the struggle for balance people must negotiate in their personal use of resources.
We are all now part of a world that offers civic and interpersonal engagement with a community of others at the touch of a button, and we social creatures will naturally seek community in all of the forms in which it presents itself. Individuals--even the “digital natives”--are fielding dynamic changes in the culture of information on a personal level while the institutions of our information-rich world are struggling with fielding them as well, and the effects on individuals and on institutions are inextricably bound.
In his web tools article, Scott Shane quotes a Syrian activist who is now working for U.S.-based group CyberDissidents.org, who “believes that Facebook is doing more good than harm,” which is a significant stance from someone “arrested at an Internet cafe in Damascus,” but this online activist also warns that “users must be aware that they are speaking to their oppressors as well as their friends”.
While the repercussions from our patrons’ online activity will likely never approach the potential dire consequences discussed in the above articles, the New York Times more recently published an article from Riva Richmond in its technology section titled “How to Fix (or Kill) Web Data About You”, (April 13, 2011) that references Assange and WikiLeaks in the context of personal information online. The chief executive of Reputation.com (a company that will manage your web presence--what happens when you’re “googled”, for a fee), Michael Fertik, is quoted regarding information aggregation sites such as Spokeo.com (if you haven’t typed your name in at this site yet, do it now. Seriously. This article will be here when you get back) as “setting the stage for a WikiLeaks for your life”.
Unfortunately, the title of the article is misleading; while it is technically possible to mask or remove information about yourself online, it is time-consuming, will often require a significant expense to hire a professional, and there are still no guarantees. A friend of the author found that every effort she made “to get her home address removed from four Web sites and search engines” was “futile”. This does NOT mean, however, that citizens should be “resigned to the loss of their privacy rights because they see no recourse” (www.privacyrevolution.org). The information and resources of Choose Privacy Week encourage and assist us to take action, join the revolution, be an ally, and pass it on. Our patrons and our democracy will be better off for the role of librarians who do so.
Karyn Storts-Brinks is the librarian at Fulton High School, Knoxville, Tennessee. firstname.lastname@example.org