ruminating about privacy

I was emailing with a friend this week and he was saying how it seems strange that librarans are so aggressive in their defense of privacy while at the same time the population seems to be more and more shifting towards openness and “hey here’s my list of books” behavior outside of their library. I always draw the line between what people reveal about themselves versus what their institutions reveal, or must legally disclose, about them.

I also often feel that one of the reasons we’re in this strange place is because many privacy issues are ones that technology could be solving for us. Yet, at the same time the technology we’re working with doesn’t allow us the granularity of making, for example, patron reading information available in the aggregate while still keeping the patron’s identity completely private. We have many patrons

Patron 1 wants to make sure no one ever knows what they are reading. Tells the OPAC to not keep his reading list. Knows his PIN. Wants to make sure the public access PCs don’t retain records of the sites he’s visited. Is a bit horrified that the library data we do keep isn’t in some way encrypted or otherwise protected.
Patron 2 wants to know every book she has ever checked out. Wants the library to leave the name of the book she has on hold on her answering machine. Wants her friend to be able to pick the book up for her at the library. Doesn’t remember her PIN and finds it vaguely annoying that she needs more than her library card number to use the OPAC.

A privacy solution that works for Patron 1 becomes a usability impediment to Patron 2. While libraries have the responsibility to keep both patrons’ data safe, they also have the responsibility to be usable and accomodating to both patrons. Technology, in my opinion, can address these issues but librarians have to a) embrace it b) request it from their vendors c) be willing to tolerate the learning curve that comes with any new technology.

I’m off to the tiny library today to help them with their slow automation project. In the meantime, these are the articles I have been reading about privacy lately. They’re about the information the mailman has, not the librarian, but it could apply to any of us at our job as well. The blog post is about an NPR story following a mail carrier on her route. She talks about what she knows about the world and the economy based on what people are getting delivered. She is supposed to keep people’s mail private, and she never mentions any names. Yet, there’s a lot of metadata in mail delivery, things the mailman knows. The blog’s author wonders how simple it would be to identify the people getting mail delivered from the information the mail carrier imparts. Feel free to read the rest.