Choose Privacy Week was initiated by the American Library Association to draw attention to the importance of privacy, and what people can do about it. It is a great opportunity to learn about the important role librarians play in achieving this.
This year’s theme of Choose Privacy Week is “Inclusive Privacy: Closing the Gap”, and raises awareness of the privacy inequities imposed on vulnerable and historically underrepresented groups. It highlights how libraries can close the privacy gap for those who need it most.
Why Privacy Matters
Privacy is of course a right. As set out in Article 12 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, people should be able to live free of arbitrary interventions in their private life.
There is a good reason for this. The possibility to have a private life is central to much of what makes us human. In particular, it gives us the freedom to think, speak and access information freely.
IFLA’s submission to the UN Special Rapporteur on Privacy stresses this point, underlining that without privacy, there can be a powerful chilling effect on creativity and innovation.
Privacy has traditionally been seen as a means of protecting the individual against efforts by states to import control. However, increasingly, it is privacy in the face of companies that is coming to the fore.
Data collection has never been easier, and the companies whose services we use are increasingly able to draw conclusions about us on the basis of what they see. Indeed, many of these conclusions may reveal traits and preferences of which we are not necessarily conscious ourselves.
Clearly advertising has done this for years, but the possibility to do so in such a targeted, individual manner is new.
If this was only about advertising, it would not necessarily be so important, although clearly still has a certain ‘creepiness’ factor. However, more is at stake. It can also shape the content we see on line – which stories, posts or search-results are promoted.
Ironically, perhaps, the effort to personalise services comes at the cost of individuality and privacy, as a coded version of your personality is constructed, held on a server somewhere, and then used.
This is not just an issue on social media, but also in the research space. With efforts to move from institutional to personal log-ins to academic articles, the possibility for publishers and platforms to monitor use, and make their own efforts to tailor results and experience also arise.
This is a problem, because it means that we cannot assume that the person next to us is seeing the same thing as we would. Moreover, given that the algorithmic version of your personality can only work on the basis of past data, it does not allow for you to change in the future, potentially locking you into a particular set of preferences and interests.
Privacy Can’t Be A Luxury
Yet privacy – and the need for privacy – may not be equally distributed or equally shared.
A first challenge is for people who belong to a vulnerable or marginalised group. In many cases, they may feel the need to hide what it is that makes them unique, given political, cultural or social pressures in the society around them.
The internet has been a major source of support for many in this position, given the possibility to connect to those in a similar situation elsewhere, without having to use what may be a hostile public space.
To have these characteristics and interest coded and used to shape advertising and online experience (and potentially even inform governments) takes these gains away.
There may also be challenges for people on lower incomes, who may, for example, be more reliant on smart phones to access the internet (which pose a number of privacy concerns).
They can also be obliged to share more personal information anyway online in order to apply for government services or other programmes. A 2017 study on privacy, poverty and big data by Data & Society reveals some key trends.
Add to this stories of internet subscribers being asked to pay more for a privacy-friendly connection, or the fact that more expensive phone brands are using privacy as a selling point, and the potential connection between income and the right to a private life becomes clear.
Finally, there is often not a connection between the risks faced, and the ability to do something about it.
Recent privacy legislation, such as the General Data Protection Regulation in the European Union, gives important new rights to individuals. The success of this depends on people being sufficiently skilled and motivate to choose privacy.
Yet is seems clear that even where there is awareness, there may not be the skills – or even the attitude – necessary to act on it. As the Data & Society study shows, while there is demand, people with less money, less time, and less education may feel helpless in the face of companies and government agencies.
This is just as true in the case of right to be forgotten cases. While there is certainly a place for such rules in protecting people against unfair, irrelevant or incorrect information about them being found through search results, the risk is that it becomes a tool for those in positions of power to ‘edit’ the historical record.
How Libraries Can Help
A year ago IFLA and the FAIFE Committee used the momentum of the Chose Privacy Week to bring awareness to how personal data ownership affect libraries and library users and offered practical steps that individuals can take to keep their private lives private in regards to the General Data Protection Regulation.
A year after, there is still a need to work to ensure that everyone really is aware of, skilled and motivated to use their choice of privacy.
Libraries have an expertise in information management, and a responsibility to help others develop their own information literacy skills. With more and more library resources found online, libraries can not only offer a means of accessing information and expressing yourself in as private a way as possible, but can encourage privacy-friendly behaviours in their users’ own lives.
In short, the library is not only a trusted source of information but also a community support and can “close the privacy gap” for its users by providing a safe space, training and resources to help them take control of their private lives and data.
Here are a few steps that you can take to ensure the users privacy:
- Make use of the privacy guidelines for libraries. In 2016, IFLA published the IFLA Statement on Privacy in the Library Environment. The Statement is intended to give guidance to libraries and information services in an environment that includes mass surveillance by governments and routine user data collection by commercial interests that provide content or services through the Internet.
- Reduce data traces online. Greater care in choosing privacy settings, and simply better data hygiene can all help. And there are great tools such as the Data Detox Kit already available.
- Apply tools to protect user privacy. ALA has created a list of resources on relevant tools, you can find the list here, while Scottish PEN has a Libraries for Privacy Toolkit.
- Watch presentations and webinars on the subject. You can learn a lot by watching webinars such as the IFLA webinar on the GDPR, or the ALA video on raising privacy awareness in your library.
- Help raise awareness throughout Chose Privacy Week!