Read Like Nobody’s Watching

“North Koreans are very aware that they’ve got a shortage of food, shortage of electricity. But what they’re going to say about their country is very different.”
 — Jean Lee

In my experiments with churning for a bit of extra cash from credit card sign-up offers, I happened upon the American Express website. Not long after, whenever I looked at Facebook, an advertisement for American Express would incoincidentally appear. This sort of tracking is now commonplace and seems relatively benign, at least in comparison to insurance companies monitoring your driving patterns and exercise habits.

There’s an undeniable observer effect on people’s actions when they know they’re being watched. Remember how your least favorite teacher was suddenly full of kindness whenever an administrator visited the class? Think also of why potentially embarrassing products are often sold by mail and shipped in discrete packaging. In the case of oppressive regimes, surveillance can deliberately shape people’s behavior to conform with the party line.

In addition to making all knowledge available to anyone wishing to consume it, libraries must likewise ensure there’s an absence of any negative repercussions from choosing to read certain works or authors. Aside from justified legal restrictions, there should be no such thing as forbidden, restricted, or sensitive bits of information. This is why rules resulting in the statement, “that book is locked away, you have to ask to view it,” or, “I need to sign you in if you want unrestricted Internet” are considered harmful to the free exchange of ideas.

There is little distinction between banning books outright and proclaiming, “you can read whatever you want, just be mindful that you are being closely watched… so if you look up certain subjects, the police will be notified.” This is why librarians get their hackles up when, for example, the FBI issues an alert to be on the lookout for anyone reading almanacs, or law enforcement is called to investigate people brushing up on mathematical equations, or for that matter, the chilling effects from political posturing through asserting the use of nameless sources by journalists should be illegal.

Our fondness for privacy is shown in forward-thinking data retention policies. Even before 9/11, librarian Thomas Dowling put it this way:

It’s one thing to say, “Sorry, Junior G-Man, I’ve got a policy that says I can’t give you this information.” It’s another thing to say, “Sorry, the system makes no provision for recording that information — it doesn’t exist.”

As stated more recently by the Electronic Frontier Foundation: “The best policy is to collect the minimum amount of information necessary to provide a particular service, and don’t retain that information any longer than necessary.”

In a true democracy, nobody should have to think twice about attempting to read materials on controversial topics. The only reason for a library to gather, or worse yet allow external entities to directly monitor, personally-identifiable patron use data — beyond what is required for functional operations — is to assist in the creation of a Big Brother type of environment wherein people are made to feel unduly self-conscious about the manner of information they access.

More than one murderer has been convicted by their incriminating Google searches. But how would you like it if a complete list of your reading history was archived, meaning it was susceptible to hacking and could someday be shared with any potential acquaintances or employers? I for one am glad most of that knowledge will thankfully die with me.

In the early days of e-book lending, my library was part of a collaborative that practiced what was then (and sadly now largely still is) the radical idea of letting our patrons choose which books we should pay for them to access. The resulting list of top acquisitions were predominately sex manuals and the like, along with test prep guides and other kinds of titles that libraries did not traditionally collect.

Now, some of this use may have been the digital equivalent of kids looking up naughty words in the dictionary. But it’s also possible that the level of privacy seemingly offered by accessing a library via a computer better aided people in satisfying their guilty pleasures. The advent of our virtual reference service similarly resulted in higher outreach numbers, albeit with an accompanying increased average level of rudeness among our clientele. Anonymity engenders freedom.

However, little did those netLibrary patrons know, I’m guessing, that the library and more importantly its vendor could tell exactly who was accessing which titles. Almost all of our electronic licensing now works in much the same way. When connecting from a computer within the campus network, you can view an electronic journal just as you would its printed counterpart on the shelf in the library: freely and anonymously. In order to view items from a remote location, you must instead first sign in with your personal institutional credentials. Thanks to server logs, your reading history is thereby tied to your account and is no longer kept private.

There is a big push coming to require individual authentication, regardless of location, for all patrons to access licensed library subscriptions. Doing so would be a blatant violation of our core professional standards, which state: “Databases and other digital resources provided by the library should allow anonymous searching and should not require users to reveal personally identifiable information.”

We can quibble about what if any little temporary safety this change would provide content publishers in regards to protecting against the unauthorized propagation of their intellectual property, as well as how much stock to place in assurances from commercial organizations that your data will be handled responsibly. Yet as for end users, on top of the extra hassle from having to login from within a subscriber’s IP range, I see little tradeoff benefits in allowing their reading behaviors to be so tracked. If anything, they will quite possibly somehow be monetized or otherwise exploited.

Moreover, such excessive and unnecessary surveillance would negatively impact the freedom to read. I therefore believe the shift away from allowing any form of anonymous reading to be one of the most significant threats to privacy which libraries face today. It’s not necessarily going to make us part of the thought police, but it’s certainly a step in that direction.

Further Reading

Check out my other posts for related commentary.