Intellectual Freedom Requires Intellectual Privacy #nisoprivacy

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I have quite a reading list for my work on the NISO committee to develop a Consensus Framework to Support Patron Privacy in Digital Library and Information Systems. The first meeting took place during finals, so I had not yet tackled my reading list. I have been writing and thinking about privacy for some time but not on a concentrated level like this. As I work through the research and form my opinion about privacy and libraries in the digital age, I will share my thoughts here.

One of the best articles I have read is Privacy is Not Dead—It’s Inevitable by Neil M. Richards who is a privacy law professor. While the focus is not on libraries what he writes about the internet and technology applies to libraries.

In an information age, this way of understanding privacy—as keeping secrets rather than merely being secret—will become more important.  When we collect information about people, what happens to that information? Is its use unrestricted? Is its disclosure unrestricted.

It seems that the collection of data is inevitable, so we must focus on what happens to that data. Even if library systems are not collecting patron data, or are deleting it after a relatively short time, or are allowing patron opt-in to data collection, what are vendors doing? We have seen instances where Amazon and Adobe are collecting data about library patrons. Should contracts require they do not collect data?

The idea that privacy is dead is a myth. Privacy—the rules we have to govern access to information—is just changing, as it’s always been changing. The rules governing the creation, ownership, and mortality of data can be permissive or restrictive; they may create winners and losers, but they will exist nonetheless. And some of those rules are not just going to be privacy rules (rules governing information flows), but privacy-protective rules – ones that restrict the collection, use, or disclosure of information.

This can be an important role for libraries and this committee. Libraries, ALA, and librarians should take a stand on privacy the way they have free speech and access to information.

But if we care about civil liberties, we need to foster an ecosystem in which those liberties can thrive.

In the digital age, if we care about our democratic atmosphere, we need to worry about things like access to technology, the “digital divide,” network neutrality, digital literacy, and technologies to verify that the data on the hard drives hasn’t been tampered with. We also need to ensure access to effective technological tools like cryptography, information security, and other technologies that promote trust in society.

Most of all, though, we need to worry about intellectual privacy. Intellectual privacy is protection from surveillance or interference when we are engaged in the processes of generating ideas– thinking, reading, and speaking with confidantes before our ideas are ready for public consumption.

This is the point where it becomes apparent how important privacy is libraries in the digital. Intellectual freedom requires intellectual privacy. ALA has an office dedicated to intellectual freedom. This is a core tenet of librarianship. How do we ensure that the people making decisions about technology in the library are aware of, and striving for issues related to intellectual freedom?

More and more, the acts of reading, thinking, and private communication are mediated by electronic technologies, including personal computers, smart phones, e-books, and tablets.

But constant, unrelenting, perpetual surveillance of our tastes in politics, art, literature, TV, or sex will drive our reading (and by extension our tastes) to the mainstream, the boring, and the bland. As we build our digital society, we need to ensure that we carve out and protect the intellectual privacy that political freedom requires to survive.

Fifteen years ago, the Internet was heralded as a great forum for intellectual liberation—a place to think for ourselves and meet like- (and different-) minded people unmediated by censors or surveillance. Yet, incrementally, the Internet has been transformed from a place of anarchic freedom to something much closer to an environment of total tracking and total control. All too often, it may seem like the digital future is unfolding before our eyes in some kind of natural and unstoppable evolution. But the final state of Internet architecture is not inevitable, nor is it unchangeable. It is up for grabs. In the end, the choices we make now about surveillance and privacy, about freedom and control in the digital environment will define the society of the very near future. I fear that the “privacy is dead” rhetoric is masking a sinister shift, from a world in which individuals have privacy but exercise transparency over the powerful institutions in their lives, to a world in which our lives are transparent but the powerful institutions are opaque.  That’s a pretty scary future, and one which we’ve told ourselves for decades that we don’t want.  The availability of cheap smartphones and free apps shouldn’t change that.  We should choose both control of our digital information and the benefits of our digital tools.  We can make that choice, but the “privacy is dead” rhetoric is obscuring the existence of the choice.

ALA and libraries have a long history of ensuring privacy about patron records. But there is not much (or as much as there should be) discussion regarding privacy about digital services.

Additional Reading

Photo by EFF Photos CC BY 2.0

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