Privacy Issues in Focus at LITA, ALA Midwinter 2020

The LITA Top Technology Trends session at every ALA conference is always a must-attend, featuring leading librarian voices and a focus on the current technology landscape. In Philadelphia, PA at ALA Midwinter 2020, the trends panel featured Alison Macrina (Founder and Executive Director, Library Freedom Project), Elisandro Cabada (Medical and Bioengineering Librarian, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign), Marshall Breeding (Consultant and Creator and Editor, Library Technology Guides), and Victoria Blackmer (Assistant Director, Robert R. Jones Public Library) with moderation by Ida Joiner (Librarian, Universal Academy School). 

Judging from the questions asked by those in attendance, there was a significant focus on issues around privacy and the protection of patron information. I found the most pointed and interesting discussion around the presentation by Alison Macrina, whose Library Freedom Project is an amazing resource for people interested in modern privacy and security research and training as it pertains to libraries and librarians. Alison spent time talking through the risks associated with modern Internet of Things (IoT) devices in public spaces, including everything from voice assistants like the Amazon Alexa and Google Home to smart home technologies like the Ring Doorbell.

If you aren’t familiar with this space, Ring is the brand of the most popular smart doorbell in use in the US, where the doorbell includes a camera and two-way speaker system that is connected to a smartphone app. The Ring doorbell alerts you when someone is at the door, records any movement or activity that happens within its view, and allows you to speak with someone standing outside your door via your smartphone from anywhere in the world. 

However, Ring is owned by Amazon and, as such, is a part of a much broader network of data collection and sale, including a product that Amazon sells to law enforcement agencies that includes data from these devices. Macrina discussed the privacy implications of devices such as these, the incidental effects of passive video capture and sale, and what some of the outcomes of such a panopticon might be. This discussion then bridged over into the use of other IoT products directly in libraries, such as the above-mentioned voice assistants.

Marshall Breeding also cautioned librarians in attendance about data collection by these devices, reminding the audience that once the data is collected and out of the librarian’s hands, the company doing the collecting can both use the data themselves and provide it to third parties that we may not wish to have even passive data about our spaces and patrons. Breeding went on to answer questions about the privacy implications for modern library management systems, and the trust relationship necessary between libraries and vendors when it comes to data collection and retention.

The discussion reinforced the difficulty and complexity of these issues inside libraries. The pull to use current technologies to the benefit of our patrons is strong, although these efforts simultaneously put pressures on our deepest-held ethical stances. There is also the very immediate issues relating to whether patrons can feel safe in our spaces, especially patrons who are at-risk in a variety of ways and are overly negatively affected by surveillance technologies. It’s a complicated set of things to untangle, and I appreciate LITA’s Top Technology group taking the time to contextualize and educate about them.