Category Archives: Privacy

How to Lose Friends and Influence People

The good news is that libraries can have Facebook pages again. Many used to, and then were evicted when Facebook decided only individuals could apply. (Whether you can run apps that lead people away from Facebook – say, into your catalog – is another matter . . .)

The bad news is that Facebook’s new advertising policies are alarming. They hope to recruit members as a sales force for participating products – they call it social advertising. Not only will ads be tailored to what I’m doing online (yes, we’r getting sadly used to that), they will be sent to others with my face on them. Well, maybe not MY face, surely Facebook has better sense than that. But the idea that my “friendships” would be used for spamming acquaintances in my name is disturbing. It may also be illegal. Facebook isn’t too worried, though. We can opt out if we so choose. If we don’t, though, we’ll be recommending products to friends. The New York Times examined this in its advertising industry coverage.

“Nothing influences a person more than a recommendation from a trusted friend,” Mr. Zuckerberg said.

Facebook users will not be able to avoid these personally recommended ads if they are friends with participating people. Participation can involve joining a fan club for a brand, recommending a product or sharing information about their purchases from external Web sites.

Mr. Zuckerberg said he thought this system would make the site feel “less commercial,” because the marketing messages will be accompanied by comments from friends. When asked about people who might not like ads, Mr. Zuckerberg shrugged and said, “I mean, it’s an ad-supported business.”

Librarians have a healthy concern for reader privacy. Our assumptions have been challenged lately by Web 2.0 affordances like book recommendation engines and social networking around what we read. (Sometimes the response to privacy concerns is “just get over it!”) We want to enable the kinds of social networking that people want, without storing permanent records of every book they choose to explore. Our main concern has been Big Brother. Now it’s clear we have to watch out for Big Business. (Well, we knew that . . . but this is a new and insidious move.)

We don’t always do a good job of explaining our values to non-librarians. We explain them when asked, and when we’re really cornered, as with the PATRIOT Act, we might go so far as to put up a sign. But privacy – the use of information about me – is something that is increasingly “opt out” only and the violation of that privacy is becoming the engine of commerce. Our discussion of the ethical use of information (per the information literacy standards) tends to begin and end with plagiarism. Shouldn’t we also be talking about the ethics of information more broadly?

The (Over)Examined Life?

Scott Carlson has an interesting piece in the Chronicle – “On the Record, All the Time” – about “lifelogging,” making a digital record of your life day-to-day.

Carlson thinks back to Vannevar Bush’s famous Memex, a method of indexing information by trails of personal associations. He mulls over the implications for learning and memory. Could recording your life make it easier to index it? find memories? recall material from a course you’re taking? Would you be inundated with cease-and-desist letters because your life record happens includes music you overheard, television you watched, something you read? Would you act differently if you knew a record was being made? How would those around you feel if you you captured their lives, too? And wouldn’t it make writing a subpoena a breeze? (Where were you on the night of February 5th? Don’t answer that, just hand it over. All of it. Make sure it includes your GPS coordinates.)

Mark T. Bolas, who teaches film at UCLA believes we’ll all be doing this soon, and it will be a good thing because “nobody could ever lie again.” Maybe I’m just cranky because I live in a part of the country where it hasn’t been above zero for days, but someone who lives in LA and studies film for a living doesn’t seem to me to be the most reliable authority on how to tell the truth.

I’m more taken with the SF dystopian versions Carlson refers to, and with the ideas Jeffrey Rosen, George Washington University law professor and privacy expert, raises.

Jewish law says that the mere possibility of unwanted observation, even if no one is really watching, injures a person’s sense of privacy . . . Anyone who has ever thought seriously about privacy would shudder at the thought of a lifelogged world, Mr. Rosen says. “The standard techno-positivist enthusiasm — that this is inevitable and that we should get used to it — is wrong and dramatically understates the social cost of this sort of technology,” he says.

We’ve become altogether too used to trading technological advances for the benefits of personal privacy, whether for exhibitionism, convenience, or national security. Even if lifelogging isn’t tempting, this essay about it brings many of those issues into clearer focus.

posted by Barbara Fister

Facebook news feed backlash reveals student privacy concerns

The Wall Street Journal (free) reports that students are “outraged” over two new features in Facebook called News Feed and Mini Feed. The features “track users’ actions on the site and then keep all of their friends apprised of those developments.” Students are angered that information that they thought was private became public overnight. This adds to the evidence that privacy is only mostly dead and not completely dead.

Google and the Government

The Department of Justice has asked for and received information on the kinds of searches people are doing from Yahoo, Microsoft, and America Online. No, this is not in the name of national security, it’s so the government can do research to make a better case for the failed Child Online Protection Act. (!) Google is holding out and has refused to comply with a government subpoena for a year. The government is now going to court to force Google to comply.

There’s much to be confused about here. Supposedly the government is not asking for information on individual users, just what searches have been done in any given week (and hey, who doesn’t trust the government when it comes to spying?). Why is Google so reluctant to give this out that they’ll defy a subpoena? I’d say it must be more for business reasons than concerns about user privacy. (Maybe they’re concerned about what will happen if advertisers find out what a huge percentage of Google searches are actually for porn.) And, come to think about it, what’s this about defying a subpoena? How do you do that exactly? I don’t think libraries are ever advised to go that far to protect user privacy.

The best reporting I’ve read on this so far is the San Jose Mercury News. The Wall Street Journal coverage does note that libraries make more of an effort to protect user privacy than most companies.

Study Shows Students Favor Privacy Over Enhancing Library Collection and Services

Privacy is an inherently complex and challenging topic to get a handle on made even more complicated by the almost daily changes in technology, legislation, and government activity that surround the issue. (It was recently revealed that the government is now opening private mail.) Adding to the confusion is trying to understand the extent to which people actually value their privacy. Although librarians have in general been steadfast in their support of user privacy as a core principle, personal blogs and complacency in the face of corporate use of personal information has led some to declare the the concern for privacy is dead or in at least in a coma. Recently, however, there have been some signs that the patient is waking up.

A 2005 study by Steven Johns and Karen Lawson provides some hard numbers to gauge student attitudes about privacy and the library. In the debate between personalization and privacy only 23% of students at Iowa State University felt that “developing student profiles for the purpose of enhancing the Library’s collection and services constituted justifiable use.” So before you go bibliomining your circ database or developing a user community around archived email reference questions, you may want to check out “University undergraduate students and library-related privacy issues” in Library & Information Science Research, 27 (Sept 2005) 485-495.