Welcome to the first week of Spring in the Northern Hemisphere! This month marks one year of working from home for some library workers and the hybrid remote/onsite work limbo for others. In both cases, this anniversary also marks a year’s worth of patron data collected and stored all over the place due to the abrupt switch to remote work and virtual services. It’s safe to say that many disaster or business continuity plans didn’t plan for a pandemic, and the resulting scramble to virtual or reduced physical services/work created new or exacerbated existing data privacy gaps. Last year’s #DataSpringCleaning focused on setting up the home office to address a common privacy problem – the over-retention of patron data. Check out the post and the companion workshop materials about protecting patron privacy while working from home if you haven’t already done so.
This year’s #DataSpringCleaning project is ambitious as it is daunting. This year is the Sisyphean project of data cleanup projects – no matter how many times we try and fail, we keep coming back to this one project in hopes of finally completing it. Let us go back once more into the breach, friends. It’s time to scrub our work email.
Email as Major Privacy Risk to Patron Privacy
While many library workers are aware that their emails can contain patron data, they might not be aware of how much patron data is stored in their accounts. Personally identifiable information, or PII, includes data about a patron as well as data of a patron’s activity. The former can be easy to identify and easy to email without much thought about the privacy risk of doing so:
- Physical and email addresses
- Birthdate or age
- Patron record number
- Username and password
A patron’s activities, on the other hand, can be harder to identify once you factor in the types of emails a library worker can receive or send in any given day:
- Help desk ticket threads
- Reference form or chat tickets or transcripts
- Direct email from patrons
- System or application reports or alerts
- Vendor service desk tickets or reports
This list is just a small selection of the types of emails that can contain data around a patron’s activities such as:
- Reference questions
- Search and circulation histories
- IP addresses
- Electronic resource authentication and access history
- Library computer and wifi logs and activity
And that’s just the start of how much patron data is in staff emails!
The ease of storing and sharing data through email makes it difficult to control data sharing and retention once the data hits the email system. The risk to patron privacy compounds once the email containing patron data leaves the library’s email system and into a third-party email account, be it a vendor or even a personal email account. Another risk for many libraries is that staff emails are subject to public disclosure requests. Several state and local regulations protect patron record data from disclosure, but in some cases, this protection might not extend to patron data in staff email. If your library’s emails can be publicly requested, don’t assume that you’ll get a chance to redact patron data before the emails are released to the public.
Starting the Long Journey of Protecting Patron Privacy in Staff Email
Scrubbing patron data from library email is a Sisyphean task. You can tell patrons not to email PII only to have patrons send over their logins for the financial website they can’t log into on a public computer. You can tell staff not to store patron data in work email, only to have staff use email as their primary knowledgebase for reference chat questions and answers. However, you have more control over how staff uses library email than you do patrons – this is where we start our scrubbing journey.
We’ll break this journey into two parts: the short and long term. The following are some actions workers and organizations can take in mitigating patron privacy risk in library emails:
Short term (individual) actions
- First, get familiar with your email system’s filter and search capabilities! These will make the deletion process less painful.
- Find and delete system-generated emails that contain patron data. These can be found through searching by a shared email address or subject line.
- Search for emails with attachments and delete attachments if they contain patron data
- Before deleting the email, migrate patron data that absolutely must be retained for a demonstrated operational need from email to a secured storage area designated by work (if one is available)
- Create email rules to automatically delete incoming system-generated emails containing patron data
- Learn how to use the ticketing system or other help desk or information desk systems as the primary mode of communication with other library staff about tickets and other
Long term (organizational) actions
- Create policies and procedures around restricting the use of staff email to transmit or store certain types of patron data based on data classification level and/or privacy risk
- Create secured data/file transfer options for sharing patron data, particularly between staff and authorized third parties
- Set up applications and systems to not include patron data in system-generated reports and emails
- Set up retention policies in email systems to automatically delete email based on organizational retention schedules or retention schedules set by legal regulation
- Create procedures or processes to use the ticketing system or other help desk or information desk systems as the primary mode of communication between staff as well as between staff and patrons
- Create secured storage outside of staff email for patron data that absolutely must be retained for a demonstrated operational need, and create retention schedules for the data retained in storage
The short-term actions can take a while with manual reviewing of attachments and individual emails. But, with the magic of search and filter options, you can quickly eliminate a good portion of privacy risks by deleting the archive of system-generated emails. The long-term actions require a team effort in the organization, from administration drafting policies to IT creating automatic retention policies and secured storage and transmission options.
None of us want to spend more time dealing with email than we have to, and trying to keep up with the current email inbox count is near impossible as it is. Nonetheless, we need to keep in mind that work email can put patron privacy at risk, and we must address that risk as part of our library duties. It’s a #DataSpringCleaning project that never ends, but as long as we have email, there will always be the need to clean our inboxes to protect patron privacy.