Vendor Ethics and You, Or Giving a Damn About Who’s Sharing Your Patron Data

A red sticker on a metal utility pole reads "do you want a future of decency, equality, and real social justice"
Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

The news cycle did not stop during our Cherry Blossom Break last week, alas. Last week LexisNexis signed a contract with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to provide massive amounts of personal information, including financial data, consumer data (such as purchases), and criminal data. The data provided by LexisNexis captures a very intimate view of a person’s personal and public life. As Sam Biddle states in the investigative article about the contract, “While you can at least attempt to use countermeasures against surveillance technologies… it’s exceedingly difficult to participate in modern society without generating computerized records of the sort that LexisNexis obtains and packages for resale.” If you haven’t already done so, read the article to get a sense of the contract details.

It is not the first time LexisNexis has been under scrutiny for its personal data dealings. We wrote about LexisNexis back in 2019 about their relationship with ICE, including LexisNexis’s interest in building an “extreme vetting” immigration system. This interest did not go unnoticed or unchallenged, particularly from library workers who led the calls to boycott the company. The latest contract news has renewed calls for libraries and scholarly communities – such as this statement from SPARC – to question their relationships with businesses such as LexisNexis that increasingly play significant roles in surveillance systems through their roles as data brokers.

“But Becky,” you might say, “we don’t do business with LexisNexis or Thomson Reuters. As long as we don’t do business with them, we don’t have anything to worry about.” While your vendors may have escaped the public scrutiny that LexisNexis has received throughout the years, your vendors are most likely, at the very least, collecting and sharing patron data as part of their business model (e.g. surveillance capitalism). Read the vendor contract:

  • What patron data does the vendor collect from patrons? From the library?
  • Under what circumstances does the vendor disclose patron data to fourth parties?
  • Does the vendor reserve the right to resell patron data collected from patrons and the library, even in aggregated or “anonymized” form?
  • Does the vendor reserve the right to keep patron data, even in aggregated or “anonymized” form, after the end of the business relationship? For what purposes do they keep the data?

After reading the vendor contract (as well as the vendor privacy policy), you might have a sense as to how a vendor works with patron data; however, the contract and policy are not telling the entire story. While a contract might state a vendor’s right to disclose or resell data, the details about where that data’s going and how it’s going to be used are sparse. Vendors like LexisNexis have multiple revenue streams. Your vendor might have another product not targeted toward the library market but still uses patron data in ways in which can harm patrons. How can a library figure out if a vendor’s business model doesn’t violate patron privacy?

This is where ethics comes into play. The library profession has several codes of ethics, such as the codes from ALA and IFLA. Library vendors by default are not beholden to these codes; however, this does not mean that libraries cannot hold vendors to a level of ethical practices or standards before they will do business with them. For example, Auraria Library conducts a comprehensive ethics review of library vendors, ranging from privacy and accessibility to sustainability and diversity, using both consultants and an internal ethics questionnaire. At the end of their article detailing the review process, Auraria Library’s Katy DiVittorio and Lorelle Gianelli make a call to other libraries to proactively review their relationships with vendors and taking measures in encouraging vendors to adopt a business model that aligns with Corporate Social Responsibility. As we have encountered in the past, a critical mass of libraries demanding changes to a vendor’s practices can make that change happen. Having more libraries conduct ethics reviews of vendors can prompt vendors to change their business models if their current models cause libraries to do business elsewhere.

Where should libraries start with reviewing vendors’ business ethics? The Auraria Library review process is one place to start. Even creating a statement such as Auraria’s can start the conversation about vendor ethics at your library, particularly with library patrons who might be at higher risk for harm due to the vendor’s business practices. The selection process of the vendor relationship lifecycle can be modified to include a review of the vendor’s business model, including checking the vendor against the Library Freedom Institute’s Vendor Privacy Scorecard or scorecards from independent third parties such as EcoVadis (if one is on file, that is).  Vendor assessments and audits are other places where scorecards and metrics can be used. Being detailed about the appropriate uses of patron data in the vendor contract – including details around patron data collection, processing, retention, and disclosure – can give libraries some legal leverage in protecting patron data from questionable vendor business practices. The more libraries demand ethical business practices from their vendors, the more likely vendors will notice.

With these suggestions, however, comes a warning for libraries. Vendors might start marketing themselves as socially responsible or abiding by library ethics codes as more libraries ask for details about the ethics of a vendor’s business model. If a vendor’s marketing around social responsibility and ethics centers around legal compliance or if the marketing lacks specific details about their practices, then you might have a case of “ethics washing.”  Commonly encountered in tech companies, “ethics washing” can obscure or obfuscate problematic business practices through the use of savvy marketing tactics or pointing customers to one non-problematic area of the business while not drawing attention to a more problematic area (e.g. Google’s ethical AI work and, well, Google being Google). While it is tempting for libraries to accept vendors at their word through their marketing materials and sales pitches, it is not enough. Libraries must actively review vendor practices throughout the entire business relationship to ensure that the vendor’s ethics are in line with the ethics of the library profession.

In the end, libraries compromise their ability to live up to our professional ethics when working with vendors that violate those ethics. If libraries cannot or will not work with vendors that respect and uphold patron privacy, we as a profession then must have the difficult conversation about the inclusion of a patron’s right to privacy in our professional ethics codes. At the very least, we owe patrons the truth about the library’s data practices, including our relationships with vendors who use patron data in ways that can come back to harm them and not engage in ethics washing of our own.

Cherry Blossom Break

We’re taking some time to appreciate the cherry blossoms this week.

The Space Needle framed by blossoms on the cherry trees on the side of a road.
Image source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/punkjr/416092591/ (CC BY ND 2.0)
Blossoming cherry trees lining the sidewalks on the UW Seattle campus.
Image source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/brianholsclaw/25617194540/ (CC BY ND 2.0
Cherry blossoms partially covering the street signs for Maiden Lane and Madrona Drive in Seattle
Image source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/joebehr/8607884604/ (CC BY ND 2.0)

Take some time to appreciate the flower blossoms wherever you are – we’ll be back next week with the latest library privacy news and updates.

In the meantime…

Do you have a library privacy question for us? Email us at newsletter@ldhconsultingservices.com with your question or idea and we’ll feature it in a future newsletter. We also welcome guest writers for the newsletter. If you have an idea for a guest post, let us know for a chance to be featured on the blog. We look forward to your questions and ideas!