Patron privacy had several moments in the spotlight at last week’s ALA Midwinter Conference. If you missed the conference or the news updates, no worries! Here are the highlights to help you catch up.
A big moment for privacy resolutions
ALA Council passed two major privacy resolutions during ALA Midwinter, moving the organization and the profession to make a more deliberate stance against surveilling library patrons through facial recognition software and behavioral data tracking. You can read the full text of the original resolutions at the end of the Intellectual Freedom Committee Midwinter Report, but here are the actions called for in each resolution:
Resolution in Opposition to Facial Recognition Software in Libraries
- opposes the use of facial recognition software in libraries of all types on the grounds that its implementation breaches users’ and library workers’ privacy and user confidentiality, thereby having a chilling effect on the use of library resources;
- recommends that libraries, partners, and affiliate organizations engage in activities to educate staff, users, trustees, administrators, community organizations, and legislators about facial recognition technologies, their potential for bias and error, and the accompanying threat to individual privacy;
- strongly urges libraries, partners, and affiliate organizations that use facial recognition software to immediately cease doing so based on its demonstrated potential for bias and harm and the lack of research demonstrating any safe and effective use;
- encourages legislators to adopt legislation that will place a moratorium on facial recognition software in libraries; and
directs the ALA Executive Director to transmit this resolution to Congress.[This clause was removed by amendment before the final vote in Council]
Resolution on the Misuse of Behavioral Data Surveillance in Libraries
- stands firmly against behavioral data surveillance of library use and users;
- urges libraries and vendors to never exchange user data for financial discounts, payments, or incentives;
- calls on libraries and vendors to apply the strictest privacy settings by default, without any manual input from the end-user;
- urges libraries, vendors, and institutions to not implement behavioral data surveillance or use that data to deny services;
- calls on libraries to employ contract language that does not allow for vendors to implement behavioral data surveillance or use that data to deny access to services;
- calls on libraries to oversee vendor compliance with contractual obligations;
- calls on library workers to advocate for and educate themselves about library users’ privacy and confidentiality rights; and
- strongly urges libraries to act as information fiduciaries, assuring that in every circumstance the library user’s information is protected from misuse and unauthorized disclosure, and ensuring that the library itself does not misuse or exploit the library user’s information.
[Disclosure – LDH participated in the Behavioral Data Surveillance Resolution working group]
Each resolution is a strong indictment against surveillance technology and practices, but the resolutions will have limited impact if no further action is taken by the organization or its members. While ALA and its vast array of committees start updating and creating policies, standards, and guidelines to assist libraries in enacting these resolutions, individual libraries can use these resolutions to guide decision-making processes around these technologies on the local level. Library workers can use these resolutions to start conversations about how their libraries should protect patrons against these specific surveillance technologies and practices.
Dystopian future, or dystopian present?
The Top Tech Trends session explored the dystopian aspects of technologies including deepfakes, surveillance practices normalized during the COVID-19 pandemic, and the connection between prison libraries and biometric technologies. The recorded session is available to Midwinter registrants, but if you do not have access to the on-demand video of the session, the American Libraries article on the session summarizes each aspect and the impact it can have on patron privacy and the ability for libraries to serve patrons. Take a moment to read the summary or watch the session and ask yourself – Is your library on its way toward a dystopian tech future, or has it already arrived? What can you do to protect patrons against this privacy dystopia at the library?