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.

Black Lives Matter

Hello everyone,

Black Lives Matter.

If your library or archive is thinking about collecting photographs, videos, or other materials from the protests around George Floyd’s death caused by Minneapolis police, what are you doing to protect the privacy of the protesters? Black Lives Matter protestors and organizers, as well as many protesters and organizers in other activist circles, face ongoing harassment due to their involvement. Some have died. Recently Vice reported on a website created by white supremacists to dox interracial couples, illustrating how easy it is to identify and publish personal information with the intent to harm people. This isn’t the first website to do so, and it won’t be the last.

Going back to our question – if your response to the protests this weekend is to archive photos, videos, and other materials that personally identifiable information about living persons, what are you doing to protect the privacy and security of those people? There was a call made this weekend on social media to archive everything into the Internet Archive, but this call ignores the reality that these materials will be used to harass protesters and organizers. Here is what you should be considering:

  • Scrubbing metadata and blurring faces of protesters – a recently created tool is available to do this work for you: https://twitter.com/everestpipkin/status/1266936398055170048
  • Reading and incorporating the resources at https://library.witness.org/product-tag/protests/ into your processes and workflows
  • Working with organizations and groups such as Documenting The Now
    A tweet that summarizes some of the risks that you bring onto protestors if you collect protest materials: https://twitter.com/documentnow/status/1266765585024552960

You should also consider if archiving is the most appropriate action to take right now. Dr. Rachel Mattson lists how archives and libraries can do to contribute right now – https://twitter.com/captain_maybe/status/1267182535584419842

Archives, like libraries, are not neutral institutions. The materials archivists collect can put people at risk if the archives do not adopt a duty of care in their work in acquiring and curating their collections. This includes protecting the privacy of any living person included in these materials. Again, if your archive’s response is to archive materials that identify living people at these protests, how are you going to ensure that these materials are not used to harm these people?

Black Lives Matter.

Contact Tracing At The Library

Welcome to this week’s Tip of the Hat!

Contact tracing has been used in the past with other diseases which helped curve infection rates in populations, so health and government officials are looking at contact tracing once again as a tool to help control the spread of disease, this time with COVID-19. There have been various reports and concerns about contact tracing through mobile apps, including ones developed by Google and Apple. However, mobile contact tracing will not stop local health and government officials in taking other measures when it comes to other contact tracing methods and requirements, and libraries should be prepared when their local government or health officials require contact tracing as part of the reopening process.

While there are no known cases of libraries doing contact tracing as part of their reopening process, there are some ways in which libraries can satisfy contact tracing requirements while still protecting patron privacy.

Collect only what you absolutely need

What is the absolute minimum you need to contact a patron: name, email address, and/or telephone number are all options. Sometimes patrons do not have a reliable way of contacting them outside the library – health and government officials should have recommendations in handling those cases.

But what about having patrons scan in with their library card and using that as the contact tracing log? What seems to be a simple technological solution is, in reality, one that introduces complexity in the logging process as well as privacy risks:

  • Some of the people visiting the library will not have their library card or are not registered cardholders.
  • Contact logs can be subject to search or request from officials – maintaining the separation between the contact log and any other patron information in the library system will minimize the amount of patron data handed over to officials when there is a request for information.

Paper or digital log?

Some libraries might be tempted to have patrons scan in with their barcodes (see above section as to why that’s not such a good idea) or keep an electronic log of patrons coming in and out of the building. However, an electronic log introduces several privacy and security risks:

  • Where is the digital file being stored? Local drive on a staff computer that isn’t password protected? Network storage? Google Drive (yikes!)?
  • Who has access to the digital file? All staff in the library?
  • How many other copies of the file are floating around the library’s network, drives, or even printed out?

In this instance, however, a paper log will provide better privacy and security protections when you take the following precautions:

  • The paper log should be securely stored in a locked cabinet or desk in a secured area, preferably a locked office or other controlled entry space.
  • During business hours, the paper log should be filled out by designated staff members tasked to collect information from patrons. Do not leave the paper log out for patrons to sign – not only you give patrons the names of others in the building (for example, a law enforcement agent can read the log and see who’s in the building without staff knowledge) you also potentially expose patrons and staff to health risks by having them share the same hard surfaces and pen.
  • Restrict access to the paper log to only staff who are designated to keep logs, and prohibit copying (both physical or electronic copies) of the log.

Equitable service and privacy

Some patrons might not have reliable contact information or might refuse to give information when asked. If the local government or health officials state that someone can’t enter a building if they don’t provide information, how can your library work with your officials in addressing the need for libraries to provide equitable service to all patrons who come to the library?

Retention and disposal

Keep the contact tracing logs for only as long as the government or health officials require. If there is no retention period, ask! Your logs should be properly disposed of – a paper log should be shredded and the shredded paper should go to a secured disposal area or service.

Keeping a log of visits to the library is something not to be taken lightly – you are creating a log of a patron’s use of the library. Several other privacy concerns might be specific to your library that could affect how you go about contact tracing, such as unaccompanied minors. Contact tracing is an effective tool in containing disease outbreaks in the past, but it doesn’t have to come at the expense of losing entire personal privacy if the library works with its staff and government officials in creating a process that minimizes patron data collection, access, and retention.

Week Roundup – In The News and What Would You Do?

Welcome to this week’s Tip of the Hat! Last week was a busy week. Here’s a recap of what you might have missed.

LDH in the News

What Would You Do?

One public library in New Jersey has been finding various ways to support their community while the library building is closed, but one strategy has started a debate on Library Twitter – using patron data to do welfare checks:

Recently, the Library decided to take more direct action to help the Roxbury community. Armed with its enormous patron database, library staffers are going through the list and, literally in descending order, calling the oldest and most vulnerable of Roxbury’s residents to inquire on their well-being, let them know someone cares and will listen, and when need be to connect them to vital resources to get them through this difficult time.

The article goes on to describe how this strategy led to an increase in requests for masks to be distributed by the library.

While this single instance seems to have had a positive outcome, the use of the data collected by the library to do wellness checks brings up the question of “we could, but should we?” concerning using patron data in this manner. Some of the issues and considerations brought up on Library Twitter include:

  • Scope creep – several library workers serve as de facto social workers in their communities. How can libraries in this position support their community while working with local community organizations and local government departments who are better suited for social work? How can this work be done while honoring patron privacy?
  • Data quality – the article stated that the library staff used the age listed in the patron database. How reliable is that data? ILS migrations and even the move to an automated library system can introduce data quality issues in the patron record, including age.
    • For example – one library that moved from a paper-based system to an ILS in the mid-1990s still found patrons whose birthdays were listed as the date of the migration years later.
  • Notice and consent – patrons have certain expectations when giving data to libraries. Some of these expectations come from what the library states in their privacy and confidentiality notices, as well as other communications to patrons from the library. It’s safe to say that libraries don’t list “wellness checks” in their patron privacy notices as one potential use of patron data. This gets into the issue of using data outside of the stated purposes when the data was exchanged between the patron and the library. Recent data privacy legal regulations and best practices address this by requiring businesses to inform about the new use and to get affirmative consent before using the data for said new use.

There are some other items brought up in the Twitter discussion, such as different expectations from patrons, the size of the community, and patron-staff relationships. Some patrons chimed in as well! Like many other real-world data privacy conundrums, this one is not as clear cut in terms of how to best approach addressing the issue at hand – making sure that patrons in under-supported or vulnerable community groups get the support that they need.

We want to hear from you – what would you do in this situation? Email us at newsletter@ldhconsultingservices.com and we’ll discuss the results in a future newsletter. We will not post names or institutions in the newsletter results, so email away and we’ll do the rest to protect your privacy as we discuss patron privacy. Let us know what you think!

Ethics Breach As Privacy Breach

Welcome to this week’s Tip of the Hat! We’re still sorting through the big pile of notes and handouts from our trip to #PSR19 last month. This week’s newsletter will cover another session from the conference. Escaping the clutches of CCPA we focus on another important topic – particularly for libraries – for reasons that will become clear below.


Data breaches are a common occurrence in life. We get email notifications from Have I Been Pwned, credit monitoring referrals, and the inevitable “we value your privacy” statement from the breached company. Breaches also happen at libraries and library vendors; there’s no escaping from the impact from a data breach.

What you might not know, though, is that breaches come in different forms. In their presentation “The Data Breach vs. The Ethics Breach: How to Prepare For Both,” James Casey and Mark Surber broke down the three types of data breaches: security, data, and ethics. Security and data breaches take many forms: improper staff access levels to a database, a stolen unencrypted laptop, or sending an email with sensitive data to the wrong email address.

While security and data breaches focus primarily on failures to secure data on a technical, procedural, or compliance level, ethics breaches focus on the failure to handle the data consistent with organizational or professional values. A key point is that you can still have an ethics breach even if you follow rules and regulations. Ethics breaches involving privacy can include using consumer data for purposes that, while not violating any legal regulations, the consumer would not expect their data to be used for such a purpose. Another example is doing the absolute minimum for data security and privacy based on regulations and industry standards, even when the reality is that these minimum requirements will not adequately protect data from a breach.

Ethics breaches damage an organization’s reputation and public trust in that organization and, given the difficult nature of cultivating reputation and trust with the public, are hard to restore to pre-breach levels. Monetary fines and settlements make data and security breaches costly, but the lost reputation and trust from ethics breaches could very well be the more expensive type of loss even before you factor in the harm to the persons whose data was caught in the breach.

Casey and Surber’s talk proposed an Ethics by Design approach to aligning data practices in all stages of development and processes to ethical standards and practices. Ethics by Design might look something like this in libraries:

  • Adherence to professional ethics codes and standards, including:
  • Auditing vendors for potential ethics breaches – this audit can be done at the same time as your regularly scheduled privacy and security audits.
  • Considering patron expectations – patrons expect libraries to respect and protect their privacy. That privacy extends to the library’s data practices around collection, use, and sharing with third parties. They do not expect to be subject to the same level of surveillance and tracking as practiced by the commercial sector. The ethics breach litmus test from Casey and Surber’s talk can help identify an unethical data practice – upon learning of a particular practice, would a consumer (or in this case, patron) respond by saying “you did WHAT with my data?!”? If so, that practice might lead to an ethics breach and needs to be re-evaluated.

Ethics by Design asks us to “do the right thing”. Ethical practices need money, time, and resources – all which many libraries are short of at one time or another. It is easy to bypass ethical standards and practices, as well as doing the absolute minimum to follow regulations, particularly when “everyone else is doing it.” The nature of library work at its core is to uphold our patrons’ human rights to access information. Ethics guides libraries in creating practices that uphold and protect those rights, including the right to privacy. Protecting patron privacy should not only focus on preventing a security or data breach but also preventing an ethics breach.

Ransomware, CS and Privacy, and #FollowMonday

Welcome to this week’s Tip of the Hat! Summer is in full swing this August, and the Executive Assistant is contemplating where would be the coolest place in the office to park herself to work. While she roams the office and while I make sure she doesn’t make a small blanket fort connected to the office refrigerator, here are a couple of quick links and updates in the privacy and library worlds to start your week.

A refrigerator with its door open, and a green tent set up in front of the open door.
Ransomware strikes another library system

Last month, the Butler County Federated Library System in Pennsylvania became the latest library system to succumb to ransomware. As a result, the system has gone back to using paper to track circulation information. Like other ransomware attacks, the system might have to rebuild their online infrastructure if they are unable to retrieve the ransomed data.

If your library hasn’t been hit with ransomware yet, the best defense against ransomware is to prevent it from taking over your system. Awareness programs and information security training can help with educating staff about the ways that ransomware and other viruses and malware can infiltrate the library system, and regular reminders and updates can also help keep staff current on trends and new infosec practices.

Training can only go so far, though, and having a plan in place will not only help mitigate panic when ransomware takes over a system, but also mitigate any overlooked vulnerabilities concerning patron data privacy. For example, while libraries have used paper for decades to track circulation information, automation in the last few decades has taken over this process. Making sure that staff are trained and have current procedures in handling sensitive patron data in paper format – including storage and disposal – can help protect against inadvertent privacy breaches.

H/T to Jessamyn West for the link!

Is it time for Computer Science curriculums to prioritize privacy?

In an op-ed in Forbes, Kalev Leetaru argues that CS curriculum should follow the way of library and information science and emphasize privacy in their programs. Near the end of the article, Leetaru illustrates the struggle between privacy and analytics:

Privacy naturally conflicts with capability when it comes to data analytics. The more data and the higher resolution it is, the more insight algorithms can yield. Thus, the more companies prioritize privacy and actively delete everything they can and minimize the resolution on what they do have to collect, the less capability their analytics have to offer.

This represents a philosophical tradeoff. On the one hand, computer science students are taught to collect every datapoint they can at the highest resolution they can and to hoard it indefinitely. This extends all the way to things like diagnostic logging that often becomes an everything-or-nothing concept that has led even major companies to have serious security breaches. On the other hand, disciplines like library and information science emphasize privacy over capability, getting rid of data the moment it is safe to do so.

What do you think? Would emphasizing privacy in CS programs change current data privacy practices (or lack thereof) in technology companies?

#FollowMonday – @privacyala

Keeping up with all the latest developments in the privacy field is a challenge. There is so much happening that it can be a full-time job to keep up with all the developments. ALA’s Choose Privacy Every Day Twitter account can help you sift through all the content in a nicely packaged weekly post of the major developments and updates in the privacy world, be it in libraries or out there in the world. You can find out about new legislation, tools to help protect your patrons’ privacy, and yes, there is a section to keep up with the latest data breaches.

Humans, Tech, and Ethical Design: A Summit Reflection

Welcome to this week’s Tip of the Hat!

Last Saturday LDH attended the All Tech Is Human Summit with 150+ other technologists, designers, ethics professionals, academics, and others in discussing issues surrounding technology and social issues. There were many good conversations, some of which we’re passing along to you all as you consider how your organization could approach these issues.

The summit takes inspiration from the Ethics OS Toolkit which identifies eight risk zones in designing technology:

  1. Truth, Disinformation, Propaganda
  2. Addiction & the Dopamine Economy
  3. Economic & Asset Inequalities
  4. Machine Ethics & Algorithmic Biases
  5. Surveillance State
  6. Data Control & Monetization
  7. Implicit Trust & User Understanding
  8. Hateful & Criminal Actors

Each risk zone has the potential to create social harm, and the Toolkit helps planners, designers, and others in the development process to mitigate those risks. One of the ways you can mitigate risk in many of the areas in the design process (like the Data Control and Surveillance zones) is incorporating privacy into the design and development processes. Privacy by Design is an example of integrating privacy throughout the entire process, instead of waiting to do it at the end. Much like technical debt, incorporating privacy and other risk mitigation strategies throughout the design and development process will lessen the need for intensive resource investment on short notice when something goes wrong.

Another way to approach ethical design comes from George Aye, co-founder of the Greater Good Studio. In his lightning talk, George identified three qualities of good design:

  • Good design honors reality
  • Good design creates ownership
  • Good design builds power

Viewed through a privacy lens (or, in the case of LDH, with our data privacy hat on), these qualities can also help approach designers and planners in addressing the realities surrounding data privacy:

  • Honoring reality – how can the product or service meet the demonstrated/declared needs of the organization while honoring the many different expectations of privacy among library patrons? Which patron privacy expectations should be elevated, and what is the process to determine that prioritization? What societal factors should be taken into account when doing privacy risk assessments?
  • Creating ownership – how can the product or service give patrons a sense that they have ownership over their data and privacy? How can organizations cultivate that sense of ownership through various means, including policies surrounding the product? For vendors, what would it take to cultivate a similar relationship between library customers and the products they buy or license?
  • Building power – building off of the ownership questions, what should the product or service do in order to provide agency to patrons surrounding data collection and sharing when using the product or service? What data rights must be present to allow patrons control over their interactions with the product or process? Libraries – how can patrons have a voice in the design process, including those more impacted by the risk of privacy harm? Vendors – how can customers have a voice in the design process? All – how will you ensure that the process will not just be a “mark the checkbox” but instead an intentional act to include and honor those voices in the design process?

There’s a lot to think about in those questions above, but the questions illustrate the importance of addressing those questions while still in the design process. It’s hard to build privacy into a product or services once the product is already out there collecting and sharing high-risk data. Addressing the hard ethical and privacy questions during the design process not only avoids the pitfalls of technical debt and high-risk practices, but also provides the valuable opportunity to build valuable relationships between libraries, patrons, and vendors.