Personal Identifiable Information and Archiving For The Public Interest

 “There is no political power without control of the archives, if not of memory. Effective democratization can always be measured by this essential criterion: the participation in and access to the archive, its constitution, and its interpretation.” Jacques Derrida

Archives and libraries are important memory institutions. Their role in documenting many aspects of human lives can, alongside providing a vital support to researchers, also promote accountability and the bringing to justice of those who infringe rights. One of my favourite archive stories relates to an episode of Guatemalan history.

In 2005, some abandoned old buildings in Guatemala City were opened for an upcoming city project. Unexpectedly, they revealed the entire archive of the defunct National Police. Amidst piles of papers ruined by humidity, vermin and tears lay the documentation of a series of horrors committed at the height of Guatemala’s civil conflict in the 1980s. During this time, governmental death squads roamed the city and kidnapped individuals who never returned to their homes.

Upon the discovery, local volunteers and archivists worked alongside colleagues from the USA to collect, preserve and digitize all the papers. The effects of such discovery had profound repercussions on Guatemalan society as the discovery allowed the country to close the door on one of the most violent periods of its history. The digitized archives were made available online and they are now publicly available here.

This story underlines that institutions such as libraries and archives are the homes for our collective memory. They help us to understand the past, make sense of the present, and guide us for the future. Archives and libraries collect and store this information in the public interest, and inevitably, they will collect information concerning people.

The broad definition of personally identifiable information potentially covers a wide range of materials – blogs or news stories containing political views, Wikipedia pages, tweets. These all serve to identify a person.

Clearly there are significant concerns about how data is used, for example by social media platforms, credit rating agencies, or marketing companies. The new General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which entered into force on 25 May 2018, applied to all of them. But what what does it mean for memory institutions?

The law has the general aim to protect individuals’ rights and freedoms and enables organisations to process personal identifiable information with due regard for the rights and freedom of individuals. As such, a data subject has the right to be informed about the data gathered about him/her, has the right to access, the right of rectification and process and the right to erasure or the right to be forgotten, among others.

Article 17 of the GDPR states that the “data subject shall have the right to obtain from the controller, the person who determines why and how personal data are processed, the erasure of personal data concerning him or her without undue delay and the controller shall have the obligation to erase personal data without undue delay”.

However, there is an exception for archiving purposes, amongst other circumstances. “Importantly, the right to erasure does not apply if processing is necessary for archiving purposes in the public interest, where erasure is likely to render impossible or seriously impair the achievement of that processing”.

However, this exception is only optional – countries have to decide whether they want to include it in national law. Moreover, it is unclear what the phrase “archiving purposes in the public interest” really means and which archives/collections are covered. The phrase is not defined in the GDPR itself.  A recital may imply that coverage is limited to institutions with a legal obligation to acquire and preserve records but there are others who collect for different reasons and their mission also results in public benefit.

With more and more countries looking to adopt data protection legislation, there is a need to ensure that archiving exceptions are protected. Without this, there is always a risk that those who committed crimes during the Guatemalan civil war can ask for the evidence of their crimes to be deleted.

IFLA is planning to write a statement on personal identifiable information and archiving in the public interest and it would like to gather opinions, comments and suggestions from its FAIFE community on this topic. Please let us know if you have any ideas to contribute. We are looking forward to hearing from you.

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