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Tip of the Hat

13 August 2020

Libraries, Privacy, and... Tropes?


Welcome to this week’s Tip of the Hat!

A popular way to procrastinate at LDH is to dig through the pile of articles and other literature about all facets of privacy: regulations, ethics, practices, current events… the current events pile is at overcapacity at the moment. In these piles of articles, we come across one particular trope that we'd like to address – libraries as exemplars of privacy ethics and practices.

This trope is similar to others in other mainstream stories that use libraries as exemplars for other things, such as community engagement, democracy, and learning centers. The “library as privacy exemplar” trope coexists with these other tropes, sometimes in the same story. Other times the trope is front and center of an article. An example of this is an IAPP article about general privacy practices at the library. At best, this article demonstrates the attitude and tone of how many writers think about the library as an enlightened entity with their focus on privacy. Near the end of the article comes another trait that these articles tend to share, which is modeling privacy practices off of the library profession: “While library culture tilts heavily in favor of protecting the ‘citizen from state’ intrusion, that same culture can be mobilized to advocate for ‘customer’ privacy as well in relation to third-party service providers.”

All of this leads us to a hidden danger in the “library as privacy exemplar” trope, which is unquestioned trust in libraries in all matters of privacy and data ethics. Some of that trust has been earned - there are several library privacy initiatives, such as the Library Freedom Institute, that are very active in the greater community in their advocacy and education around data privacy. In addition, LDH's conversations with technology workers in other fields have made it clear that professionals in other industries wished that they had strong professional ethics and standards like the library profession.

Nonetheless, others from outside the library profession take this trust too far. For example, in Emma Trotter’s “Patron Data Privacy Protection at Public Libraries: The Ethical Model Big Data Lacks”, Trotter proposes that libraries should become personal data stores (PDS) where people can gather their data in one secure place and then manage the processing of their data by third parties. Trotter is very confident that libraries can become the ethical role model for Big Data with this marriage between PDS and library privacy ethics. Overall, Trotter believes that the ethical issues around Big Data would be negated once libraries become front and center in the overall management of Big Data.

While libraries do have a strong ethical basis around advocacy and adoption of privacy practices, libraries also have their fair share of privacy issues and gaps. Libraries are not immune to the same threats and vulnerabilities as other professions and industries, such as data leaks and breaches, ransomware attacks, phishing, and even underfunding or undertraining staff in ways to protect patron privacy. Librarianship also deals with ethical issues around their collection and processing of patron data, particularly for marketing and user profiling, as well as working with vendors who also collect and process patron data without giving the patron control over what is collected and processed. One doesn’t need to search too far to find an example of such – one being the Santa Cruz Public Library’s Civil Grand Jury Report about the numerous ethics breaches surrounding their use of patron data without full patron notice and consent, among other violations of patron privacy.

Yes, other industries can learn from libraries about how to approach privacy in their daily work, including ethics and advocacy, but libraries also have to be honest about the profession's struggles around data privacy, both on a practical and ethical level. Part of that is being public with these struggles in the public discourse, be it with patrons or with people from other industries who are looking for a model to base their professional privacy ethics and practices on. Another part is re-evaluating how we, as a library profession, market ourselves as privacy experts and safe-keepers of data to our patrons. Again, libraries set themselves apart from other industries regarding privacy ethics and advocacy, but they cannot set themselves apart from the reality that is working with data in the real world that has real needs that fall into ethical gray areas and real data security and privacy risks.