Daily Archives: December 18, 2007

Some Thoughts on Privacy 2.0

The Pew Internet in American Life project has just come out with a report on how people feel about their online identity. Digital Footprints examines who keeps track of personal information available online, how they feel about inaccuracies they might find, and whether they are nervous that so much personal information is publicly available.

The majority of Internet users responding to the survey say they don’t worry about it. Most would like to control their digital image – but don’t take steps to do it. (Interestingly teens are more likely to limit access to their profiles. Many adults feel an unlimited online presence is necessary for their careers – and teens may feel limiting their profile is an equally smart move for their future careers.) Technology has changed our expectations: the interactivity of Web 2.0 and the addition of new data formats and geotagging will only increase the fine grain of our digital footprint. But so have external events. The public grew far more tolerant of having their privacy invaded after 9/11, according to several studies in a fascinating section of the report.

My guess is that we’ve been equally desensitized by advertising that is driven by harvesting and analyzing our searches, and by banks and other corporation routinely mining our lives for personal information. (Fortunately Senator Dodd thinks there should be some limits to corporate spying, at least when it contributes to a violation of the constitution.)

The recent OCLC report on Sharing, Privacy, and Trust in our Networked World found that only about half of respondents want libraries to keep their activities private, in contrast to librarians, who are more likely to find privacy important. In general, this report jibes with Pew’s in that people want to control what they share. They just aren’t very aware of what they’re sharing when they’re not in control. The degree of trust in information services that store their searches and use that information commercially either means there’s a disconnect between wanting to control what they share and letting corporations harvest information from their searches – or they simply don’t recognize the extent to which it’s happening.

The OCLC report urges libraries to do more social networking to develop trust.

We know that privacy is important to users, and to librarians, but we also know that sharing and open access matter. Privacy matters, but sharing matters more. If the axiom “convenience trumps quality” was the trade-off that gave rise to the search portals as providers of “good enough” information, it might be said of the social Web that “sharing trumps privacy.”

Unfortunately the example they use as a success in this area is the banking industry (huh?), not sites that seem to take both readers and privacy more seriously, like LibraryThing (which is not mentioned in the OCLC report, though it’s doing largely what the report recommends libraries do). And it seems to contradict the report’s belief that people are desperate to share that there are only seven comments at the site OCLC created to discuss the report.

The blogger Rudibrarian has a brilliant post on this issue.

Something I think about whenever I see a list of Cool 2.0 Free Tools You Can Implement At Your Library is privacy (or more accurately, confidentiality). Why are they free? Who’s getting what? Does the user retain ownership of their information? Is the library facilitating the sale or use of users’ information when offering this tool?

I *only* think about this when I see others’ implementations or lists of tools. I almost never think about it when I myself am doing something where I ought to think about it. Like, perhaps, when adding applications to my facebook….

…Users ought to worry about this stuff but the information world has gone completely mad and out of control and is being monetized and ramified in all sorts of ways they can’t even begin to understand when they take their first gateway drug (which might be a DisneyPhone designed to allow their parents to track their every movement and thus desensitize them further!)

So, librarians used to have this bill of rights to guide library services which states

IV. Libraries should cooperate with all persons and groups concerned with resisting abridgment of free expression and free access to ideas.

Which I read to mean that libraries and librarians work to support the statement that all individuals are free to read whatever they choose and that such reading is nobody’s business but their own. Essentially, that libraries and librarians are (or should be) committed to protecting patron privacy and confidentiality (two similar but not identical goals).

So, questions to ponder for later parsing:

1. Are libraries still committed to this?
2. Should we care that our patrons (especially academic library patrons, since that’s my ball of string) don’t care about their own privacy or confidentiality? Should their naiveté trump our responsibilities?
3. Does our desire to do more for our patrons hold hands with their naiveté to further sexy goals, or is it OK to not let them know what we’re doing (or that we don’t know!)?
4. Does anyone know how much info we’re giving away though Facebook? or other username/password identity sites?
5. Is it still within our power to prevent Minority Report from becoming reality?

To which I’d add: Aren’t these all questions we should be asking ourselves, right now, urgently?

You mean I can’t throw these out?

James Cortada, a historian of computing who works for IBM, has a nice screed (Save the Books!) over at the American Historical Association that heaps a bit of anger on us lil’ old academic librarians.

Fresh from reading Nicholson Baker and full of Google digitization anxiety, Cortada charges that a new spectre is haunting libraries: heartless librarians ruthlessly discarding old PC-DOS manuals. (Wah! I had to scrounge second hand bookstores to write my 3 volume history of computing! Bad librarians! Them not book people!) Apparently no one told Cortada that when librarians discard books it’s called deselection, and we have rigorous protocols in place for that kind of thing.

Kidding aside, I agree with much of what Cortada has written and don’t think librarians and historians are as far apart on the issue as he claims. The future of print collections in light of the Google digitization project is a serious issue that is seeing ongoing discussion by librarians. In New Jersey, academic librarians gathered at Fairleigh Dickinson University for a one day symposium on the Future of Print in the Academic Library that included suggestions for collaborative solutions. Obviously, all libraries can’t and shouldn’t be holding on to everything, therefore choices must be made as to who saves what.

IUPUI Library Dean David Lewis demonstrates a nuanced understanding of the issues in his recent “Strategy for Academic Libraries in the First Quarter of the 21st Century.” In his section on “retire legacy print collections” Lewis talks about regional collection management and the use of OCLC’s WorldCat as a tool for this purpose. He writes perceptively:

Whether it will be possible to build a national consensus and to implement a concerted program of action or whether a laissez-faire approach will be adequate is unclear. Until one approach or the other is proven to work, individual libraries will either have to delay decisions or make them on faith. Neither choice will be attractive to tradition-minded librarians who do not wish to antagonize faculty who value proximity to “their” books.

That sounds familiar, as I’ve been purposely procrastinating on a project of sending more of our history collection to remote storage for a while now. I’ve knocked off some low hanging fruit, like multi-volume outdated reference books in foreign languages, but more difficult decisions loom. Historians do tend to feel that the library should buy everything and hold on to it forever. Cortada’s piece can be a jumping off point for communication between librarians and historians. If librarians can understand more about the importance of holding on to ephemera (and non ephemera) for future historical writing, historians can understand more about the realities and economics of space planning. Beginning the conversation early is better than doing the evil mad laugh while running from the dumpster.