Choose Privacy Week and Libraries: Bringing Privacy to the People

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By Martin Garnar, Chair, ALA Intellectual Freedom Committee

Privacy today is all about choice, tradeoffs, and control. When asked what concerns them most when it comes to protecting privacy, people respond with a variety of issues:

  • “Privacy with GPS products, like iPhone apps that will start spamming me just because I walk by the grocery store. Do not want.”
  • “Money stuff. Also my personal contact info. I don't care if people see my Facebook but I don't want everyone to have my phone number and address. I would rather live online as an avatar, a picture that someone can communicate with, as opposed to giving anyone the ability to come talk to me face to face.”
  • “Getting outed by others – the possibility of friends posting my full name online, or the bank accidentally making my data public. It's outside my control.”
  • “Anything $$$-related. I'm also concerned about my photos on the internet (photos of me, or photos I've taken).”
  • “Though I have many privacy concerns about social networking, financial transactions, and surveillance cameras, my chief privacy concern remains the same now as it was in the pre-digital era: the wearing of pants.”
  • “I'm primarily worried about identity theft, and also about being tracked online by people from my past. I’m thankful that having a fairly common name has made it hard for me to be found.”
  • “Surveillance cameras in public spaces, using personal info in any way that is beyond necessary, recording people without permission, using photos without permission, the new Bio-passport stuff... I could go on and on!”
  • “I always figure anyone in the whole world can see or repost anything I put on the internet, no matter how private a place it's originally posted. I don't have any credit cards because I have been burned in the past. I guess I've never felt like my privacy WASN'T being violated.”
  • “Call me paranoid, but I never give my phone number or e-mail address to cashiers.”
  • “I lie about all that stuff, so who cares?”
  • “There is still a lot of creepy stuff going on with the NSA collecting information about ordinary U.S. citizens, ‘just in case.’”
  • “Privacy for medical records seems hugely important. Mostly because of the potential for people to make money off of how healthy or unhealthy a person is.”

Sense a theme? Many of these concerns revolve around the online world, and as mobile computing is moving from the exception to the rule, these concerns about privacy start applying to more parts of our lives. Even those people who go out of their way to avoid sharing information online are still subject to having private information collected, stored, and sometimes marketed by others, whether it’s the doctor’s office, the government, or online directories like Spokeo or Switchboard. It’s not until using one of those directories that some people realize just how much of their personal information is freely available online.

Privacy Please!Selling personal information is not the only business opportunity. People who are concerned about identity theft and other privacy violations can choose from a number of commercial protection services that are supposed to safeguard their information in exchange for an ongoing fee. That sounds promising, but what happens if the service becomes too expensive, or if the company goes out of business? Bottom line: there are a lot of questions about privacy, but answers are few and far between. Before those answers can be found, more people need to be asking questions about privacy and what they can do to take charge of their information. Choose Privacy Week, which takes place May 2-8, 2010, is about bringing those issues out into the open and discussing them – and libraries are the perfect places for those conversations to take place.

Why libraries? Take another look at the list of comments about privacy. Libraries aren’t on the radar. Either people think libraries don’t pose a security risk, or they don’t even think about how hard we work to protect their private information when it’s in our hands. Though our reaction to the USA PATRIOT Act did raise the profile of privacy-lovin’ librarians, you’d be surprised how many people still don’t understand the connection between libraries and privacy. Does that mean Choose Privacy Week is just a chance for librarians to pat ourselves on the back? Not at all. While librarians can and should do our best to protect the information entrusted to us when people use our libraries, we can’t control what happens outside our doors. What librarians can do is help people understand their options for taking charge of their personal information. Participating in Choose Privacy Week is your chance to start the ball rolling. Talk to your local library about what’s going on in your community for Choose Privacy Week and, for more information about the issues and ways to take action, visit