Children & digital rights – privacy in libraries: talk for IALS conference
The library’s role is to provide access to material and to do so whilst at the same time ensuring absolute confidentiality and anonymity.
Why does the privacy of children matter?
Carrie Gardner (quoted in (Adams 2002)) says “Often, if people do not think their information requests and information-gathering activities are going to be kept private, they won’t ask for the information. They would rather suffer the consequences of not knowing”.
At the tween stage (a youngster between 10 and 12 years of age considered too old to be a child and too young to be a teenager) they are just finding their way. They are just at the cusp of recognizing who they are and learning about the world. They need privacy as a form of freedom to develop as a person.
Then as teenagers, as part of their process of development they may well be looking for materials on sensitive topics (Tough topics for teens http://lauraperenic.blogspot.co.uk/2016/03/tough-topics-bookmarks-and-poster.html )
If children were to look for material about these topics by going online and accessing electronic resources such as ebooks or ejournals, the question arises as to who could potentially access that information, for how long it is kept, and for how long it can be linked back to an identifiable individual.
If a library user accesses an ebook from home, their personal data is processed by the library; by the e-book vendor; and by the e-reader software company. The e-book vendor may use third party cookies, and whilst they may claim that these cookies don’t contain any personally identifiable information and can only be used to identify machines rather than individuals, the reality is that device fingerprinting can be used to fully or partially identify individual users.
In America under section 215 of the PATRIOT Act, the authorities could gain access to that sort of information, whilst imposing a gagging order on the library to ensure that no-one was even aware that they had asked for the information. The American Library Association is dedicated to ending ongoing mass surveillance, which continues despite important reforms made by the USA FREEDOM Act of 2015 which replaced the PATRIOT Act.
And in the UK a similar situation pertains under the Investigatory Powers Act 2016.
People often think that the only way the law enforcement authorities would be able to access such information is where they serve a warrant. But there are a number of routes through which such information could be requested, and they don’t all need a warrant.
In what ways does privacy play out in a library context?
One example relates to circulation records.
A couple of years ago there were reports of the leaking of the school library borrowing history of author Huraki Murakami (McCurry 2015). This yet again raised the issue of privacy (Finch 2015).
Another example would be requests for assistance to find information on sensitive issues. (Catherine) Beyers found herself responding to requests by teachers and parents for information on sensitive issues related to specific students she served. This aspect of her work included “helping teachers locate materials for children about suicide, having a parent in jail, or loving with a disabled sibling” (Adams 2002).
(Ferguson, Thornley et al. 2016) bring together a number of ethical scenarios. One was about privacy versus potential harm to individuals. A school librarian noticed that a child had been reading about sex abuse. The librarian normally regards what children are reading as ‘off limits’ and does not inform teaching staff. A child reading about sex abuse, however, raised alarms. The outcome was that ‘the person with pastoral responsibility for that individual child was alerted.’ In this case, therefore, ‘confidentiality would not be the predominant factor’ although the interviewee added that this was ‘obviously challengeable.
In another case study (Ferguson 2016), a library manager helped save the life of a suicidal client.
Such cases test the limits of LIS professionals’ commitment to protection of client confidentiality, where there is potential harm to that client.
Use of fingerprints as ID instead of a library card
Many school libraries across the UK have implemented technology enabling pupils to take out books by scanning their thumb prints instead of using a card. Such systems are intended to replace library cards and save time and money in managing the libraries. However, the use of electronic fingerprinting systems in this way to manage loans of library books has raised a number of privacy concerns.
In 2006 the Department for Education and Skills and the Information Commissioner said parents could not prevent schools from taking their children’s fingerprints.
Thankfully, the Protection of Freedoms Act 2012 now provides stronger protections. Chapter 2 deals with the protection of biometric information of children in schools. It says that “if, at any time, the child (a) refuses to participate in, or continue to participate in, anything that involves the processing of the child’s biometric information, or (b) otherwise objects to the processing of that information, the relevant authority must ensure that the information is not processed, irrespective of any consent given by a parent of the child.
What has my child looked at online or checked out?
This raises issues of intellectual freedom of young people, childrens’ rights to privacy, responsibility, and freedom to use library materials.
Could – or indeed should – a parent have access to data about what their child has been looking at online?
When faced with the parent-child relationship, to whom is the library responsible? The child possessing a library card is the cardholder of record. However, in many libraries the parent has traditionally been asked to sign as the financially responsible party to try to control losses and recover the cost of lost books.
(Hildebrand 1991 p3) says “Honoring privacy is a concrete expression of respect for another person. We need to start out with a belief that it is desirable for adults in our society to allow children to experience privacy and respect”.
(Symons, Harmon 1995 p13) While a surface acceptance of user’s rights to privacy may be easy, implementation of this right throughout library operations and in the face of pressure is, in fact, difficult. Library employees end up on the grounds of privacy and confidentiality explaining to parents that although they may be billed for their children’s lost books, they are not entitled to a list of everything their children have checked out.
Issues around filtering and monitoring of content
(Wyatt 2006) Librarians are often reluctant to monitor patrons’ Internet access. Monitoring seems to be in direct conflict with the librarian’s ethical duty to honor a patron’s privacy (Skaggs 2002 p851).
At least one parent has sued a public library for allowing her child to access pornography on the Internet. In the American case Kathleen R. v. City of Livermore 104 Cal.Rptr.2d 772 (2001), a minor boy accessed pornography through the Internet and distributed it to his friends. His mother sued the library claiming that “the government had a constitutional duty to protect her minor son from the offensive material found on the Internet” (Kendall 2003 p221).
Although the public library has not been found legally liable for failure to monitor children’s unfiltered access, the question remains whether the librarian should play the role of a monitor? If parents do not see the public library as a safe place for their children, they will not allow them to go there.
By never encountering inappropriate content, individuals do not develop the ability to decipher for themselves which content might be appropriate or not. Given the unreliability of filtering software, this is an essential skill in today’s world. We also need to take account of other measures to achieve child protection that may have a less restrictive impact on information access: e.g. situating public access terminals apart from areas designated for use by minors; and providing user education, support and training (Cooke, Spacey et al. 2014).
At times it seems as though there is an unhealthy desire to monitor childrens internet activities. In August 2017 the BBC reported on a French company offering “invisible PC spy software”. The company was criticised after it said its product could be used “to find out if your son is gay”. It listed a number of clues that might cause a parent to suspect that their son might be gay. One of which was being more interested in reading and theatre than in football. BBC News Online story from 23 August 2017(BBC News Online 2017)
Many libraries use filtering software. Indeed, in America, the Children’s Internet Protection Act requires public and school libraries to have a policy of Internet safety for children. CIPA’s amendments specifically require protection that “blocks or filters” access to visual depictions that are obscene or harmful to minors. If libraries fail to comply, they will not receive federal funding through the E-rate program, which provides a bulk of the federal funding for library Internet connectivity.
(Ledbetter, Heiss et al. 2010 p187) draw attention to the issues around the expectations regarding children’s privacy change throughout the course of child development, and privacy invasions may occur frequently within parent-child relationships. (Petronio 1994) notes that the college years are a time when parental expectations of their children’s privacy can be particularly unclear. Although undergraduates view their college years as a time of increasing independence, ‘‘parents may contradict these expectations by invading the children’s privacy boundaries’’ when the child returns home or when away at college (Petronio 1994 p244). Therefore, parental invasive behaviors ‘‘may send a message to college-aged children that indicates the reluctance of parents to let go’’ (p. 245).
‘‘When I am using the computer, they come behind me and read over my shoulder for a few minutes;’’ ‘‘My dad reads the instant messages I write.’’
‘‘My mom would sometimes try to read my online blog.’’
Likewise, computer-based defences consisted of concealing online conversations such as changing passwords, deleting emails, or closing open windows when a parent enters the room.
Children do want to hide things from parents. It may seem like a contradition in terms, but children may well seek out the privacy that a library can offer as a public space.
Personalization & providing a tailored service
(Adams 2002) While the privacy of students and underage patrons must be protected, Pat Scales, cautions against carrying protection too far. “My primary concern regarding privacy issues as it relates to children and young adults is that we cannot allow privacy to interfere with ‘best practice.’
“This is especially true with reader guidance issues. For example, I feel that it is important that I know what a child likes to read in order to lead him/her to another book they will like. I’m not going to reveal my knowledge to another person, but that child may need my guidance. I don’t believe that we should force guidance on a child, but we cannot totally serve their needs if there is complete privacy.”
Fisk (2016) says adolescents are more likely to value privacy from their parents and other local adults moreso than they are the somewhat more distant-seeming but ever-present threat of corporate surveillance.
In conclusion, libraries face a number of ethical challenges in their work, and that is true of their work with children just as it is for other age groups. Issues such as:
- What has my child checked out
- Situations where children consult material on difficult or controversial topics
- Use of fingerprinting as a form of ID instead of a library card in school libraries, and
- The use of filtering and monitoring of internet activity
- Personalization & providing a tailored service
These all pose challenges for a child’s privacy and confidentiality.
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