Watching You Watching Me

Imagine this – you visit your local art museum for the first time in over a year. You’re excited to be back in the physical building! You get to be in the same physical space as the art! You make your way to one of your favorite art pieces in the museum, but when you finally arrive, you find something odd. Next to your favorite art piece is a small camera pointing at you and everyone else viewing your favorite art piece.

A ShareArt camera next to a painting in the Istituzione Bologna Musei.
Image source: Istituzione Bologna Musei

Is this to make sure people are wearing masks? Social distancing? Or is it something more?

Museum-goers in Italy are already facing this reality with the inclusion of the ShareArt system in several Italian museums. The system aims to track how long museum visitors spend at the museum piece, creating data to inform exhibition layout and scheduling decisions. In addition, there is interest in having the system capture and analyze facial expressions as mask mandates fall to the wayside. While this project aims to guide museums in making their collections more visible and accessible for museum visitors, it also brings up new and perennial concerns around privacy.

Tracking Bodies, Tracking Data

Libraries and museums are no strangers to counting the number of people who come into a building or attend an event. Door counters installed on entrance/exit gates are a common sight in many places, as well as the occasional staff with a clicker manually counting heads in one space at a specific time. The data produced by a door counter or a manual clicker counts heads or people in an area usually is relegated to the count and the time of collection. This data can get very granular – for instance, a door counter can measure how many people enter the building in the span of an hour, or a staff person can count how many people are in a space at regular intervals in a day. This type of data collection, if nothing else is collected alongside the count and time collected, is considered a lower risk in terms of data privacy. Aggregating count data can also protect privacy if the door or event count data is combined with other data sets that share data points such as time or location.

Patron privacy risk exponentially increases when you introduce cameras or other methods of collecting personal data in door or space counts. Door or space counters with webcams or other cameras capture a person’s distinct physical traits, such as body shape and face. This updated door counter mechanism is a little different than a security camera – it captures an individual patron’s movements in the library space. With this capture comes the legal gray area of if audio/visual recordings of patron use of the library is protected data under individual state library privacy laws, which then creates additional privacy risks to patrons.

Performing for an Audience

One good point on Twitter about the ShareArt implementation is that people change their behavior when they know they are being watched. This isn’t a new observation – various fields grapple with how the act of being observed changes behavior, from panopticon metaphors to the Hawthorn Effect. If a project is supposed to collect data on user behavior in a specific space, the visible act of measurement can influence the behavioral data being collected. And if the act of measurement affected the collected data, how effective will the data be in meeting the business case of using behavioral data to improve physical spaces?

Libraries know that the act of surveilling patron use of library resources can impact the use of resources, including curtailing intellectual activities in the library. Privacy lowers the risk of consequences that might result from people knowing a patron’s intellectual pursuits at the library, such as checking out materials around specific topics around health, sexuality, politics, or beliefs. Suppose patrons know or suspect that their library use is tracked and shared with others. In that case, patrons will most likely start self-censoring their intellectual pursuits at the library.

The desire to optimize the layout of the physical library space for patron use is not new. There are several less privacy-invasive ways already in use by the average library to count how many people move through or are in a particular space, such as the humble handheld tally clicker or the infrared beam door counter sensors. Advancements in people counting and tracking technology, such as ShareArt, boast a more accurate count than their less invasive counterparts but underplay potential privacy risks with the increased collection of personal data. We come back to the first stage of the data lifecycle – why are we collecting the data we are collecting? What is the actual, demonstrated business need to track smartphone wifi signals, record and store camera footage, or even use thermal imaging to count how many people enter or use a physical space at a particular time? We might find that the privacy costs outweigh the potentially flawed personal data being collected using these more invasive physical tracking methods in the name of serving the patron.

An Audacity Postmortem for the Library World

A black silhouette of a condenser microphone against a white background with a blue audio wave track spanning across the middle of the background.
Image source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/187045112@N03/50135316221/ (CC BY 2.0)

It seemed so long ago – last week at this time, LDH was logging back into the online world only to find yelling. Lots of yelling. Why were so many people yelling in our timeline? What did someone in the library world do this time to set people off?

It turns out that the source of the outrage wasn’t located in the library world but instead in the open source community. Users of the popular audio editor Audacity loudly objected to the recently updated privacy policy, claiming that the new language in the policy violates the existing license of the software and turns Audacity into spyware. Even after clarification about the new language from Audacity, several users took the current Audacity code to start their own Audacity-like software projects that wouldn’t be subject to the new policy language. This created its own issues – one project maintainer was attacked after a targeted harassment campaign after they objected to the offensive name of another project.

The Audacity debacle continues; nevertheless, are a couple of lessons that libraries can take away from this mess.

Privacy Notices and Your Patrons

We will start at the privacy notice. In the privacy world, a privacy notice differs from a privacy policy. The latter is an internal document, and the former being a document published to the public. In part, a privacy notice informs the public about your privacy policies/practices and what rights the public has regarding their privacy. The language changes to the privacy notice carry several possible points of failure, which we encountered with the Audacity example. A comment thread in the language clarification post identifies some of the significant issues with how Audacity went about the changes:

“I think what a lot of people are also taking issue with… is that these major, scary-sounding changes are popping up seemingly out of nowhere without any sense of community consultation. Right now, I think people feel caught off-guard yet again and are frustrated that the maintainers aren’t demonstrating that they care about what the broader community thinks of their decisions.”

What can libraries take away from this?

  • Write for your audience – Privacy notices are notoriously riddled with legal language that many in the general public are not equipped to navigate or interpret. Your privacy notice can’t skip the vetting process by your legal staff, but you can avoid confusion by using language that is appropriate for your audience. This includes limiting library and legal jargon or creating summaries or explanations for specific points in the notice to understand more detailed or longer sections of the notice. Twitter’s use of summaries and lists in their privacy notice is one example of writing to the audience. In addition, don’t forget to write the notice in the major languages of your audience. Everyone in your community deserves to know what’s going on with their privacy at the library.
  • Involve your audience – The earlier quote from an Audacity community member demonstrates what can happen when key stakeholders are left out of critical decision-making processes. How is your library working with patrons in the creation and review of the privacy notice? Asking patrons to review notices is one way to involve patrons, but involving patrons throughout the entire process of creating and reviewing a privacy notice can reveal hidden or overlooked privacy issues and considerations at the library.
  • Communicate to your audience – What do you do when you publish a change in the privacy notice? Your patrons should not be caught off guard with a significant change to the notice. Luckily, your library already has many of the tools needed to tell your patrons about important updates, from your library’s news blog or newsletter to in-library physical signage and flyers. Website alerts are also an option if used judiciously and designed well – a website popup, while tempting, can be easily clicked away without reading the popup text.

Open Source Software and Privacy Expectations

We’ll go ahead and get this out of the way – open source software is not inherently more private and secure than its proprietary counterparts. OSS can be private and secure, but not all OSS is designed with high privacy and security standards by default. One of the primary reasons why so many in the Audacity community were upset with the changes is their assumption that OSS would not engage in data collection and tracking. However, several other popular OSS projects engage in collecting some level of user data, such as collecting data for crash reporting. Having other major OSS players collect user data doesn’t automatically make this practice okay. Instead, the practice reminds those who make software decisions for their libraries that OSS projects should be subject to the same rigorous data privacy and security review as proprietary products.

A strength of OSS is the increased level of control users have over the data in the software – libraries who have the in-house skills and knowledge can modify OSS to increase the level of privacy and security of patron data in those systems. The library OSS community can provide privacy-preserving options for libraries. Other libraries have already shared their experiences adopting privacy-preserving OSS at the library, such as Matomo Analytics and Tor. Ultimately, libraries who want to protect patron privacy must choose any software that might touch patron data with care and with the same level of scrutiny regardless of software licensing status.

Privacy Roundup – Heat Dome Edition

8:31 am - 90 degrees at SeaTac and it's 8 a.m. Here we go.
Welcome to Monday morning in Seattle. Source: The Seattle Times.

Seattle is in the middle of a record-breaking heatwave, with Monday predicted to be in the low 100s F, making this the third consecutive day of 100+ temperatures. This week’s newsletter comes to you in three short parts as we take advantage of the cooler temperatures to write.

What’s going on in Colorado?

When we last wrote, Colorado lawmakers passed the Colorado Privacy Act, making it the third state to enact data privacy regulations, behind California and Virginia. While the bill has yet to receive the governor’s signature, the privacy world is already planning for CPA. CPA stays relatively close to California and Virginia data privacy regulation, though CPA also takes some inspiration from GDPR. There is one key distinction that sets CPA apart from the other states’ laws – the inclusion (or, more accurately, the lack of exemption) of non-profit entities alongside their commercial counterparts in the scope of the Act. This inclusion could mean that many non-profit library vendors who fell outside the scope of CCPA, CPRA, and CDPA might need to assess if their data privacy practices need to change to comply with CPA.

What does compliance to CPA all entail? The charts from the National Law Review comparing CPA with GDPR and the California data privacy laws are a good place to start. The write-up on CPA from Thompson Hine LLP provides a more focused overview of Colorado’s (soon to be) new law. Finally, an IAPP article about the CPA talks about the strengths, missed opportunities, and less than stellar parts of the Act.

Privacy webinars and websites and resources, oh my!

Are you looking for library privacy webinars? How about recordings? Resources? No matter what you’re looking for, we got you covered!

  • This Tuesday, June 29th, at 4 pm Eastern Time, Safe Data | Safe Families will be hosting a free webinar sharing materials and resources to help public libraries and patrons face the challenges around data privacy and security at the library and beyond.  Even if you can’t make it to the webinar, check out the staff training resources on the website, particularly the personas you can use for your library privacy training.
  • If you missed the Health Literacy and Privacy in a Pandemic webinar series, don’t fret! You can access and download notes, graphs, and other documentation from the conference at https://healthandprivacy.com/notes/. Looking for the videos? You can watch them as well on the front page.
  • Last but not least, if you missed our founder’s keynote at the Evergreen International Conference, you can now watch the recording on YouTube. Download the slides to follow along as well as resource notes!

Reader survey

Thank you all again for those who filled out the reader survey. While we had a small number of respondents, the responses were all positive! Based on the survey, we will hold off on membership levels and monthly subscription memberships for now but will continue to provide the vast array of content to continue to be helpful in your work.

On the other hand, the Executive Assistant was slightly disappointed that more people did not demand more cat photos in the survey. We will attempt to cheer her up with a nice cool can of tuna, though that could mean changing our donation from a cup of tea to a can of tuna.

Write about library privacy (and more) at the ALA Intellectual Freedom Blog!

Is the library privacy muse inspiring you to write a blog post or two about library privacy topics? Sign up to be a blog writer for the ALA Intellectual Freedom blog! This is an excellent opportunity for those wanting to share your thoughts about library privacy to a large library audience or those looking for a service opportunity (I’m looking at you, academic library folks!). Go to the Blogger Application page to learn more about becoming a writer for the blog.

To Build or to Target?

It’s been a busy couple of weeks in the privacy world. First, Colorado is poised to be the newest state to join the patchwork of US state data privacy law. Next, Overdrive acquires Kanopy. And then there’s what happened when a patron submits an FOIA request for their data. Privacy forgot that it’s supposed to be summer vacation! Today we’re setting aside those updates and talking about a topic that has been one of the most requested topics for the blog.

You or your colleagues might be scanning through the last couple months of American Libraries in preparation for ALA Annual later this month, only to come across the “Target Acquired” article in the May 2021 issue (page 52-53), profiling three libraries in their use of marketing and data analytic products. The profiles seem harmless enough, from email newsletter management to collection analysis. They want to understand their patrons to serve their communities better. These profiles give three different ways these products can help other libraries do the same.

Did you notice, though, that none of the profiles talked about patron privacy?

There’s a reason for that. Marketing and data analytics products such as customer relationship management systems (CRMS) rely on personal data – the more, the better. The more data you feed into the system, the more accurate the user profile is to create a personalized experience or more effective marketing campaigns. CRMS are increasingly integrated into the ILS – OCLC Wise is an example of such an integration, and other ILS companies plan to release their own versions or create better integrations with existing products on the market. The libraries using Engage and Wise are excited about the possibilities of better understanding their patrons through the data generated by patron use of the library. However, we wonder if these libraries considered the consequences of turning patrons into data points to be managed in a vendor system.

It should be no surprise to our readers that LDH’s approach to marketing and data analytics in libraries does not place data above all else. Data ultimately does not replace the relationship-building work that libraries must do through meeting with community members. However, advertisement pieces such as the one in American Libraries aim to normalize user profiles in CRMS and other analytics products in libraries. As the article states at the beginning, data plays a large part in library outreach. With the pressure to prove their value to the community, library administration and management will reach for data to secure their library’s future in the community. The cost of over-relying on data to prove a library’s value, however, is usually left unexamined in these situations.

With that said, let’s do a little exercise. We have the chance to write a sequel to the advertisement piece. Instead of questions about the products, our questions will turn the tables and focus on the libraries themselves:

What are the privacy risks and potential harms to different patron groups from using the product?

Increased patron surveillance via data collection and user profiling can lead to disproportionate privacy risks for several patron groups. In addition, the business models of several vendors create additional harm by targetting specific minoritized groups, such as reselling data to data brokers or providing data to government agencies such as ICE.

What business need(s) does the product meet? What other products can meet the same need that doesn’t create a user profile or require increased patron surveillance?

Sometimes libraries buy one system that doesn’t match the actual business need for the library. For example, several collection management systems on the market do not require individual-level data to provide analysis as to how to spend collection budgets or meet patron demand. In addition, libraries do not need market segmentation products to perform collection usage analysis.

How does the library reconcile the use of the product with Article III of the ALA Code of Ethics, Article VII of the ALA Library Bill of Rights (and the accompanying Privacy Interpretation document), and other applicable library standards and best practices around patron privacy?

This one is self-explanatory. FYI – “Other libraries are doing the same thing” is not an answer.

What are social, economic, and cultural biases encoded into the product? What biases and assumptions are in the data collection and analysis processes?

Library services and systems are not free from bias, including vendor systems. One bias that some libraries miss is that the data in these systems do not reflect the community but only those who use the library. Even the list of inactive users in the system does not fully reflect the community. Moreover, data alone doesn’t tell you why someone in your community doesn’t have a relationship with the library. Data doesn’t tell you, for example, that some patrons view the library as a governmental agency that will pass along data to other agencies. Data also won’t fix broken relationships, such as libraries violating patron trust or expectations.

What is the library doing to inform patrons about the use of the product? Do patrons fully understand and consent to the library using their data in the product, including pulling data from data brokers and creating profiles of their library use?

More likely than not, your library does not give patrons proper or sufficient notice, nor give patrons the chance to explicitly consent for their data to be collected and used in these products. Refer to the Santa Cruz Civil Grand Jury report on what happens when the public calls out a library using a product in the advertisement article without full patron notification or consent.

Keep these questions in mind the next time you read about marketing and data analytics products in professional magazines such as American Libraries. These advertisement articles are designed to fly under the radar for readers who might not be thinking about the privacy implications of highlighted products and practices. Building relationships with the community require a considerable amount of time and care from the library. Data might seem to be a shortcut in speeding up the process. Nonetheless, choosing to view patrons as targets and metrics can ultimately undermine the foundation of any sustainable relationship.

Reader Survey Open Until June 15th

Thank you to everyone who has filled out the reader survey. If you haven’t filled out the survey yet, we want to hear from you! Take five minutes to help shape the future of the blog by filling out our short survey.

State of The Hat: What’s Brewing and Reader Survey

A black plushie llama flanked by two blocky yellow and green rubber duckies. The llama has a sticker of a brown hat on top of their head. Text on the hat: "follow the hat, libdataprivacy.com"
Back in our early days…

Welcome to June! Today marks the start of the blog’s “summer schedule,” where we post on a bi-weekly basis. This month also marks the beginning of the summer for many in the Northern Hemisphere. We say “many” because in Seattle the summer season is replaced by construction season. For our East Coast readers, summer is becoming Brood X season.

Now that we are halfway through 2021 let’s take a peek behind the scenes of the blog, including a chance to help shape the future of the Hat!

What’s brewing at The Hat?

There are few certainties in today’s world: death and taxes are two. The third is the rapid pace of change in the privacy world. It’s hard to keep up with all the updates, even for privacy professionals such as ourselves at LDH! The Tip of The Hat is doing its best to keep up with the latest news and updates in the library privacy world. From major vendor acquisitions and library policies around COVID-19 to tracking privacy implications of the newest library technology trends and significant tech company developments, we’ll keep you covered! We are also keeping track of the ongoing deluge of state and federal data privacy bills. While we are not lawyers at LDH, we will continue to alert our readers of new data privacy laws that will affect how libraries work with vendors in protecting patron privacy.

We also have several ongoing series and reader requests in the middle of all these news and updates! The third installment of our “Librarians as Information Fiduciaries?” is in the works, as well as additional writeups for tools to add to your privacy tech toolkit or cybersecurity awareness programming. We might even make a habit of doing our #DataSpringCleaning throughout the year, particularly for library workers who are making the transition back to the office or who are now planning to continue a hybrid of onsite and virtual work and programming. And we will never not post about the patron data lifecycle, including posts questioning why we are collecting data that, if we are honest, is not needed for our patrons to use the library.

We’ve had several requests for more content around the privacy, ethical, and equity implications of handling data in libraries, particularly around data analytics and how libraries use customer relationship management systems (CRMs) for market segmentation projects. More posts are in the works as major library vendors release new data analytics and CRMs into the library market. Yes, we did notice the “Target Acquired” article in the May 2021 issue of American Libraries (page 52-53). Yes, we plan to write about where that article misses the privacy mark with its product profiles. Analytics is not far removed from surveillance. We will continue to highlight how libraries can avoid becoming another major player in the surveillance economy, including the various privacy risks involved in tracking patron use of libraries, be it by libraries or by vendors.

How you can shape the future of The Hat

We at LDH are doing our best to keep the library world up to date with the latest news and updates in the privacy world, as well as delivering more in-depth pieces around library privacy. The Tip of The Hat has been going strong since February 2019 – this post is #102! Best of all, every blog post is free for all to read and will continue to be free to the library world and beyond.

This free model has been sustainable, but up to a point. Each week (or every other week during our summer posting schedule), we research, write, edit, and post timely and thought-provoking content about all matters of library privacy. We want to explore a few ways in which those who can financially support this work can help us continue the blog for the long term.

If you visited the blog last week, you might have noticed a new link in the blog menu inviting people to buy us tea. Readers of the blog can now donate a few dollars through our new Buy Me a Coffee page! Currently, we have the page set up for readers interested in a one-time donation to keep The Tip of The Hat running via cups of tea. No site account is required to donate – you only need a credit card or PayPal account for a one-time donation.

[The fine print – Readers can visit the privacy policy to learn more about what information is and is not collected and processed on the donation site. Readers who want to donate without attaching a name to the donation can do so following the instructions on the Supporter FAQ page.]

We also want to hear from our readers! We created a quick reader survey asking about other possibilities for the future of The Hat, including future content ideas and possible membership levels to help fund the continued work on the blog. Again, we will continue to make the content on the blog free for all to access, even if we introduce a membership level for those who want to make a monthly donation to support the blog.

The survey will be open to our readers until June 15th, 2021. Please take a few moments to let us know your thoughts about the future of The Hat! Thank you all again for your support and readership throughout the years. We look forward to hearing from you all about the future of the blog and beyond.

We’ll be back on June 14th – enjoy the start of the new month!

A Quick Chat About Patron Data Privacy During Company Acquisitions and Mergers

Another week, another acquisition. The latest news in the library vendor world came last Monday, with Clairvate purchasing ProQuest at the small sum of $5.63 billion. Academic libraries that subscribe to Web of Science and EndNote with Clairvate and Alma and Primo with ProQuest face the reality that now all of these products are owned by one company. We can’t forget that ProQuest has its fair share of mergers and acquisitions, though, as illustrated in Marshal Breeding’s ProQuest mergers and acquisitions chart.

This latest acquisition continues the trend of consolidation in the library vendor marketplace. With this consolidation of products and services comes the ability for companies to create more complete profiles of library patrons through increased data collection and tracking capabilities. In fact, during the company call regarding the acquisition on May 17th, company representatives commented that with the ProQuest acquisition, the company “can serve the entire research value chain, early stage and K12 setting, thru postgrad.” Put another way by another company representative, “We can touch every student in K through doctoral degrees everywhere. There is no product overlap.” Combine that quote with phrases from the press release such as “long-term predictive and prescriptive analytics opportunities from the enhanced combination of ProQuest’s data cloud with the billions of harmonized data points in the Clarivate Research Intelligence Cloud” (emphasis mine). You start to understand why this acquisition is a patron privacy concern.

This isn’t the first time a merger or acquisition brought up library privacy concerns. However, the size of this acquisition is cause for all libraries to stop and review their vendor management practices. The vendor relationship lifecycle can assist libraries in reviewing some of their vendor management practices. It’s difficult to determine if a vendor will still be around as an independent company in a few years when you’re shopping for a product or service. Nonetheless, it’s still worthwhile to do some research around the company. For example, you can find the latest vendor news in various library industry publications and sites such as Computers in Libraries and Library Technology Guides. Doing some research ahead of time (including asking around your professional network) can flag potentially problematic or unsustainable businesses to remove from consideration in the selection process.

The onboarding stage provides opportunities for libraries to mitigate privacy risks throughout the rest of the vendor lifecycle. Contracts usually do the heavy lifting when determining the fate of customer data after an acquisition, merger, or bankruptcy. We won’t get into the detailed legal aspects of mergers and acquisitions – we are not lawyers at LDH. Still, you can read a two-part blog series about pre- and post-closing liabilities around privacy and acquisitions/mergers if you want the nitty-gritty legal details. Nonetheless, vendor contracts should have something in the contract about what will happen to patron data in the case of a merger, acquisition, or bankruptcy. Though the concept of data ownership is fraught with equating data to a commodity, retaining ownership of patron data by the library addresses some of the risks, including patron data in the list of company assets during a sale or bankruptcy. Another contract negotiation point is reserving the right to withdraw the library’s data from the company after a sale or bankruptcy. This withdrawal needs to address how the data should be securely transferred and deleted from the vendor’s systems, treating this process as the separation process at the end of a business relationship. Yet another control strategy is requiring explicit and affirmative informed consent from patrons if the vendor wants to include the patrons’ data in the acquisition or merger. The more control the library has over the fate of the data after a company is bought or goes under, the better chances the library has to mitigate privacy risks.

Thanks to the trend toward monopolies in the library marketplace, libraries subscribing to ProQuest or Clairvate products and services have limited options outside of using the contract in controlling data flows and disclosures during a merger or acquisition. When discussed with your legal staff, the contract strategies mentioned earlier can mitigate data privacy risks when the vendor eventually becomes part of a giant conglomerate. Conglomerates (or monopolies) can go beyond the basic user profiles and analytics with more invasive behavioral tracking and analytic practices traditionally absent in libraries. Until there is a critical mass of libraries combining their political capital to push vendors to engage in privacy-preserving data management, individual libraries will need to continue navigating contract languages and “what if” scenarios on a vendor-by-vendor basis.

A Forced Exercise in Risk Management

A mustached adult white man leaning back in his office chair holding a beer. Text overlay "well that escalated quickly"
Image Source: https://knowyourmeme.com/photos/353279-that-escalated-quickly

When we asked readers last week about library discussions around campus or organization mandates requiring COVID-19 vaccinations, we expected that libraries would have time to plan to adjust to the mandate. Responses from last week indicated as such. The consensus was various employee groups meeting and discussing who must be vaccinated and how workplaces can confirm vaccination status.

Then Thursday came around, and the CDC escalated things a tiny bit with their new mask guidelines. And by “a tiny bit,” we mean “blowing away any incremental steps in loosening mask guidelines and went straight to a free-for-all mask honor system.”

Britney Spears grimacing while listening to a contestant on a popular singing competition show.
Yikes.

This sudden decision took many businesses and organizations – libraries included – by surprise. Most planned for a multi-month phased reduction in mask requirements, but here we are. After a year of struggling to get even the most reluctant patrons to mask up in the library, library workers now face several conundrums including dealing with patrons who refuse to follow library mask requirements based on the CDC announcement and libraries required by their parent organization to check for vaccination status for patrons going maskless in the library.

Libraries that can still require masks for everyone regardless of vaccination status can bypass the privacy issues around checking patron vaccination status. The libraries relying on local or state mask mandates to enforce their own can’t rely on them, though, given how quickly some state and local governments are dropping their mask mandates. While the CDC said that only fully vaccinated people can be maskless in most public spaces, the lifting of state and local mask mandates when many places haven’t reached the 50% vaccination mark (such as Washington State at the time of the announcement) turns this privacy issue into a privacy and health issue for both patrons and library workers. What we have is the privacy risks discussed last week now compounded by health risks presented with the new guidelines.

Managing risk is rarely a clear-cut process. Reducing one risk could inadvertently create or increase the chances for another risk. Keeping a detailed access log of who logs into a particular electronic resource through a proxy server can aid in investigations and quicker resolutions to issues around systematic unauthorized content harvesting, but this mitigation comes at the cost of privacy through increased collection and retention of detailed patron data, increasing the risk of improper reuse of this data through the library or third parties (such as creating user profiles for targeted marketing or reselling this data to fourth parties) or through a data breach or leak. Risk management is a process of checks and balances where one needs to consider the consequences of choosing risk management strategies and avoiding a “min-max” outcome with unaddressed risk.

Libraries who want or are now required by their organization to enforce CDC guidelines in their libraries now face the issue of suddenly needing to manage the risks around checking the vaccination status of maskless patrons. The US has not widely adopted a vaccine passport system (which has privacy issues), and fake vaccination cards abound. We listed the issues around contact tracing in libraries in a previous post, and all of those privacy concerns apply to libraries required to check vaccination status. The equitable service issues also apply, but it is compounded with health risks. Library workers who are still waiting to be vaccinated or cannot get vaccinated for medical reasons are stuck in limbo alongside patrons in the same situations.

These risks around privacy, service, and health would have been easier to manage through a gradual phasing out of mask mandates. Unfortunately, we are in the timeline where that isn’t happening. Requiring masks mitigates the privacy and health risks until the local population reaches a vaccination threshold where the health risks are at acceptable levels for both patrons and library workers. Libraries mitigated equitable service risks created by mask requirements by offering free masks to patrons or making alternative service arrangements for patrons who medically cannot wear a facial covering. This sudden turnabout from the CDC makes this strategy more fraught with risk. It creates a new type of service issue in the form of maskless patrons claiming vaccination status, which then creates new privacy and health issues alongside additional service issues for those who do not want to or cannot prove their vaccination status.

Some libraries that can no longer mandate masks for all might go with an honor system and allow patrons to go maskless without proving their vaccination status. That avoids the privacy and ethical risks involved in checking vaccination status but, depending on local population vaccination levels, the policy could increase the health risks to both unvaccinated patrons and library workers. It’s also an equitable service risk for patrons wanting to use the physical library but at the same time are not fully vaccinated due to medical reasons or are still waiting to start/complete their vaccination schedule.

This is all to say that there’s no good way to address the chaos created by the CDC last Thursday. We’re 14 months into the pandemic, and the pandemic fatigue settling in at the start of the year has grown at a rapid pace. Libraries – like other service and retail industries – are stuck in the middle of this, struggling with a public who are tired, confused, and ready to be done with all of this back and forth with guidelines and restrictions. Any decisions around COVID-19 policies at the library, including masks and vaccination checks, need to balance the privacy, equity, and health risks while acknowledging how that decision will impact library workers’ morale and safety.

Ask The Readers – Academic Libraries and Campus Vaccine Requirements

A black plushie llama wearing a "I got my COVID-19 vaccine!" sticker.
#PrivacyLlama got their shot!

We’re taking it a bit easy this week for a good reason – the designated blog writer just received her second COVID shot. The Executive Assistant isn’t quite ready for the blog writer position just yet, so her writing debut on the blog will have to wait a bit longer.

We have a question for our readers that we would appreciate any help with answering! Many organizations are starting to reopen for in-person services and operations as the US vaccine rollout continues. Several colleges and universities plan to reopen for in-person classes for the fall semester, but on one condition – students, faculty, and staff must be vaccinated for COVID-19. This trend of requiring vaccines to access physical spaces goes beyond academic institutions. Offices, schools, travel companies (and choice destinations), dining, and live event venues are either planning to or currently requiring proof of vaccination as part of their in-person reopening plans. The legality of some of these requirements varies by state, but it’s safe to assume that there will be an area in your life that will have some form of vaccine requirement.

Academic libraries on campuses requiring vaccination are in a unique position. While some campus libraries are restricted to those enrolled or employed at the university, many other campus libraries are open to the public. Details about vaccine requirements for campus visitors are scant, though details might emerge as we get closer to the fall semester. It’s most likely that visitors will be exempt from the requirements, but we want to find out if that is the case from our academic library readers of the blog. We’ve written about the privacy implications of libraries tracking patrons through contract tracing and medical screenings, and it could be that the vaccine requirements might add another data collection point that has privacy implications for a particular patron group.

If you work at an academic library whose campus is requiring vaccinations, we’d like to hear from you. Is your campus library being asked to track campus visitors’ vaccination status under the new vaccine requirements? Public and school libraries, too – is your organization planning similar requirements? Email us at newsletter@ldhconsultingservices.com with your answers, concerns, or questions! We will keep your replies confidential. Depending on the feedback, we will write a follow-up post about what libraries that find themselves required to track patron vaccination status can do to minimize privacy risks.

In the meantime, best of luck with your vaccination journeys, and we’ll catch you next week!

Open Data of Another Kind

Entryway door with the words "OPEN" and "NOW" written in tape on the two steps leading up to the door, respectively.
Photo by Kadir Celep on Unsplash

We sometimes like to say that something happens because of “magic” – in reality, that “magic” is the result of the (invisible) labor of real and unmagical people. To some patrons, this “magic” takes the form of the many programs, resources, and services the library provides daily. It takes the work of people in both the public and back-office spaces of the library. What happens, then, if you take the “magic” created by people and replace it with the “magic” of technology?

Last month the Santa Monica Public Library announced their plans to reopen a branch closed to the public due to staff cuts last year. The branch opening wasn’t made possible by regaining staff positions but instead made possible through a state grant to expand physical services through a suite of self-service technology. This grant uses existing technologies that many libraries use, including self-checkout machines, security cameras, and a controlled entry card swipe/tap or keypad. Combining these technologies to create a self-service library without staff isn’t new, either – for example, several European libraries expanded physical library hours through self-service technologies. The technology behind Santa Monica Library’s branch reopening, Open+, has been piloted in other US libraries such as Gwinnett County Public Library to expand library hours and service sans on-site staff.

This open library model comes with tradeoffs that leave many library workers worried. Library workers and patrons alike raised valid concerns around open libraries replacing staff to save costs. Another tradeoff that some might miss is the increased collection, processing, and retention of data generated from patron use of the physical library. While the individual technologies are not new, the combination of existing technologies to create an open library expands the amount of surveillance and data collection to a level that exponentially exposes patrons to various privacy harms.

We might as well start with the elephant in the room. The use of security cameras in libraries has been contested throughout the years, with libraries trying to balance using cameras for physical library security and patron privacy. ALA created guidelines about security camera use for libraries but the use of cameras in library spaces brings the risk of violating patron privacy throughout each stage of the patron data lifecycle:

  • Collection – where are the cameras located? Are they recording footage of patrons using library resources, such as browsing shelves, computer usage, or other identifiable usages of materials in the library?
  • Storage, retention, and deletion – where is the recorded footage being stored? Is it locally stored in the library? If not, where is that storage? Is it with a vendor, organizational IT, or even local law enforcement? How long are recordings kept? How many copies, including backups, exist, and how long are they kept?
  • Access and disclosure – who has access to the footage? Library workers, the vendor, the parent organization? Can law enforcement access the footage without a court-issued order? What are the policies around disclosing footage?

Depending on the library’s location, some state and local regulations around library privacy can potentially include security camera footage as part of their definition of protected patron data. However, this protection cannot be guaranteed even if the regulations include such footage if the vendor recording and retaining footage is not legally obligated to protect this footage or if the footage is stored and retained by law enforcement.

The use of controlled entry technology brings another privacy risk to patrons in an open library setting. Academic, school, and other special libraries might be familiar with using card swipe or tap machines that control access to physical library spaces. These technologies are uncommon in public libraries, however.[1] These controlled access systems can create logs of patron data: who came into the library at what time. This patron log can potentially put patron privacy at risk through a data breach or misuse through secondary use (the reuse of data collected for another purpose) in the form of learning analytics and marketing campaigns.

Security cameras and controlled entry onto themselves create some privacy risks; nonetheless, these risks can be mitigated if particular care is put into the planning and implementation of each technology. Pairing these technologies with other monitoring technologies creates a profile of a patron’s library use through the combination of data sets. Who is doing the data collecting, storing, and retaining determines the level of risk to patron privacy. That is where libraries considering open library models need to spend considerable time assessing the privacy risks associated with who controls the surveillance technologies used to collect and store patron data. Currently, open library models consist of third-party technologies and services to coordinate all of these technologies. These third parties are not subject to state and local regulations around library data privacy (outside of California and Missouri). Trying to replace one “magic” (people) with another (technology services provided by a third party) doesn’t get rid of cost. Instead, it transfers and transforms it to the point where some library workers might not realize that the open library “magic” comes at the cost of patron privacy.

[1] The use of controlled entry technology in public libraries is also an equity issue concerning which groups of patrons can access the library outside of staffed hours. Who is excluded from the physical library in an open library model, and what are the implications of excluding them?

Beyond Web Cookies: Google’s FLoC

A lone Canadian Goose sits among a flock of ducks sitting in the snow.
You’re about as “anonymous” as the goose in this flock with FLoC.
Image source – https://www.flickr.com/photos/see-through-the-eye-of-g/5480240484/ (CC BY 2.0)

It’s been a while since we last wrote about the many ways companies track users with cookies and beyond. This week we’re coming back to our “Beyond Web Cookies” series with the latest development in site tracking and why your library should consider opting out to protect patron privacy.

(Puns in this post are fully intended.)

Ditching the Cookie for the FLoC

 Web cookies come in several flavors, from session and persistent cookies to first- and third-party cookies. A cookie can track your behavior online, across sites, and collect personal information for marketing, advertising, and other purposes. End users can block cookies through various browser settings and plugins, but that blocking can only go so far when websites find alternative ways to track users beyond web cookies, such as privacy-invasive WordPress plugins. Nonetheless, the majority of companies rely on cookies to collect information for marketing and advertising to end-users. When end users block cookies, the company that relies on advertising revenue has limited options in creating targeted marketing.

Enter Google. Early in 2021, Google announced a new ad-tech called the Federated Learning of Cohort, or FLoC, that reports being less privacy-invasive than web cookies. This “privacy-first” technology aims to create large groups of people with similar interests based on browsing activity. Advertisers can then target these large groups grouped by topics without the possibility of identifying unique individuals through tracking data. Sounds too good to be true, right?

FLoC’ing Problems

While FloC promises a privacy-preserving way to continue making money through advertising, the ad-tech does not escape the potential of violating user privacy. The first problem is, well, Google. Google already has many ways to track users outside of Google Analytics through their products and sites that use Google APIs and services. As Shoshana Wodinsky points out, FLoC expands Google’s access to user data in the online advertising world, giving Google almost full unrestricted access to user data used for targeted advertising. Wodinsky points out that FLoC’s grouping of people by topics can lead the system to create groups of people around sensitive, personal topics. That grouping creates potential future harm and discrimination if these groups were part of a data leak or breach. Grouping people by topic will most likely increase predatory targeting, scams, and discrimination practices.

FLoC’s promise of privacy is weakened further by continuing the cross-site tracking behavior we find in web cookies, but with a twist. According to FLoC, the information gathered about a user’s browsing history can be matched up to other trackers that already have personally identifiable information. If a user logs into a site and doesn’t log back out for the duration of their browsing session, this service can potentially take the FLoC information and tie it back to the user account.

Getting the FLoC Out to Protect Patron Privacy

Google recently rolled out a “test” of FLoC to a random group of Chrome users. If you are not sure if you are in this test group, visit EFF’s Am I FloCed? to check if your Chrome browser has FLoC enabled. Google claims that there will be an opt-out option for Chrome users by April, but it’s late April and there is no sign of the opt-out option. Libraries can help patrons protect their privacy by disabling third-party cookies in the Chrome browser settings on public computers in addition to installing privacy-preserving browser plugins and privacy-preserving browsers such as Brave and Tor.

How can libraries protect patrons from having their activity tracked on library websites and services? Libraries that have some control over their library website can include an opt-out in the HTTP header of the library website. However, this might not be an option for libraries that do not have that level of control over their website or the server that hosts their library website. There are some workarounds to this, such as the FLoC opt-out plugins for WordPress (disclosure – LDH has installed the Disable FLoC plugin to opt-out of the FLoC test).

But what about vendor sites? You can use https://tanck.nl/floc-check/ to find out if a website has opted out of FLoC. Vendor sites that have not opted out of FLoC might not be aware that their website is included in this test. Use this opportunity to talk to your vendor about FLoC and ask how they will protect the privacy of your patrons on their site. This is also an opportunity to check your vendor’s privacy policy and contracts to find if your vendor is collecting patron data for advertising and marketing purposes. Now is the time to renegotiate those terms or start shopping for other vendors that better protect patron privacy if the vendor won’t budge on their use of patron data for advertising.

In short, FLoC doesn’t really replace cookies. Instead, it adds more personal information – some of it sensitive – into the targeted advertising environment controlled by one company. Because FLoC includes all websites into the FLoC test by default, libraries must take action to protect patron privacy now to ensure that patron data does not end up in the ever-growing collection of and access to user data by Google.