Why it matters

Is privacy of library users important?

After all, you might think:

what is all the fuss about, the only information that libraries hold about users covers what books they have been reading, where’s the harm in that.

well, these days the personally identifiable information which is collected about a library user accessing library services goes well beyond what they have been reading. And even if that were all it covered, would you really want all and sundry to know that you had been reading about topics such as dementia, LGBT themes, bulimia, witchcraft, or motor neurone disease.

Jeremy Bentham designed a prison referred to as the “panopticon” in which guards could watch over prisoners without the prisoners being able to see who (if anyone ) was watching them. Behaviour changes when people are – or just think they are – being watched. If library users think that their reading habits are being closely monitored are less likely to seek out information on controversial topics. How can informed debate take place about serious issues if people are afraid of negative consequences for trying to research those topics thoroughly.

Another argument that some people put forward is that librarians shouldn’t worry about protecting a patron’s privacy if they themselves overshare information about themselves. This is a bogus argument, because the individuals in question may well be totally unaware of just what the consequences of oversharing actually are.

In an article written by Jonathan Mayer and John C. Mitchell on web tracking, the following points may be an eye-opener. They refer to the following:
“We also observed other forms of identifying information leak. For example:

  • Viewing a local ad on the Home Depot website sent the user’s first name and email address to 13 companies.
  • Entering the wrong password on the Wall Street Journal website sent the user’s email address to 7 companies.
  • Changing user settings on the video-sharing site Metacafe sent first name, last name, birthday, email address, physical address, and phone numbers to 2 companies”.

On 1st December 2016 the Electronic Janitor @electrojanitor tweeted that “#Privacy matters because if you watch somebody – anybody – closely enough for long enough you’ll find something you can use against them.

This is precisely why the “nothing to hide, nothing to fear” argument is a bogus one. It is also worth reflecting on Cardinal Richelieu who famously said “If you give me six lines written by the hand of men, I will find something in them which will hang him”.

And it isn’t beyond the bounds of possibility for the law to change to make something that used to be perfectly within the law, to be made illegal. And then, because data is routinely being collected to track and monitor people, for a government to decide to look back through that data to see who would have broken that law in the past had it been illegal then (and to choose to apply any punishments or penalties retrospectively, even though it was supposedly lawful at that time).
Privacy International has a short video (3m) on What is privacy which explains far better than I could why privacy matters so much.
In (United States v Rumley 1953) Justice Douglas observed, “Once the government can demand of a publisher the names of the purchasers of his publications . . . [f]ear of criticism goes with every person into the bookstall . . . [and] inquiry will be discouraged.”