Alchemical Thoughts

Some notes on privacy and academic libraries

Posted on: December 10, 2009

The issue of privacy in academia has been on my mind recently. Our systems analyst was recently making the rounds checking our computers, and according to him, it was to "tighten certain controls" so they (the IT people and the administration) could monitor my computer use better. Our analyst can't do much about it. He gets his marching orders and has to make things work. I knew that my computer at work was monitored, but apparently they want to snoop around even more. Then I log into Facebook this morning and get their prompt to review my privacy settings only to discover that Facebook may have made things worse; in other words, at least some of the new settings for privacy are worse than what they had before. All this makes me think because as an academic librarian one of the things I try to do is educate my students about protecting their privacy online.

These are a few stories and documents that have recently caught my eye on the topic:

  • Michele M. Reid, writing for C&RL News, provides "The USA PATRIOT Act and Academic Libraries: An Overview." This is worth reading, and as certain provisions of the act face sunset expiration, contact your legislators to make sure those provisions do not get renewed. A hat tip to Resource Shelf.
  • Mary Minow, of the Library Law Blog, asks about "Library staff privacy and staff pictures on library websites." I left a couple of comments on that post. It has made me think in light of our practices in our library here. Her question of where do we draw the line in terms of our privacy and the information and images of ours that get put on library websites for the sake of "being welcoming" is a valid one.
  • The Center for Democracy and Technology has put forth a "Take Back Your Privacy" Campaign. I need to take a closer look at this. It looks like a very good resource. 
  • Here is a brief account, with text of the complaint, on the lawsuit the Electronic Frontier Foundation has filed against some federal agencies regarding their use of social networking software for investigations of individuals. Or, as the title of  Mashable's post says, "Is the CIA Following You On Twitter?
  • From CSO Online, "6 Ways We Gave Up Our Privacy." This is worth reading and food for thought. A hat tip to LIS News where a couple of the commenters, while not substantial, do raise the question of how much librarians should be willing to give up in terms of their privacy to be employed. If you have looked at recent library job applications, the assumption that the applicant is knowledgeable of things like social software means they likely have to have an account in something like Facebook. It is not really an option not to do it if you want a job in this profession at least. 
  • Mary Minow asks another interesting question for us in libraries: "Can library management legally access employee's Facebook and MySpace pages?" She is looking at a case in New Jersey that raises some questions for the rest of us. As I mentioned earlier, it is a given that my bosses monitor my online activity, but does it follow they have a right to try to access my restricted pages, as in the pages I have protected by passwords and intended to be private?
  • Rory Litwin, of Library Juice, looked at "Privacy Smoke and Mirrors" a while back. He also considers the illusion of privacy Facebook wants to portray to its users. 
  • It is fairly well known that those applications found on Facebook for games, quizzes, so on are a serious privacy leak. The New York Times featured a story on "What Facebook Quizzes Know About You." It includes a link to an ACLU quiz to help you become aware of what you lose when you use those third party applications. 
  • And in case you need more evidence, a study recently revealed that "online social networks leak personal information to tracking sites." It may sound alarmist, but it is true, and if you use social networks, you should be concerned. Read the press release, then you can see the full paper. A hat tip to Resource Shelf
  • Barbara Jones, in a paper for IFLA, gives an account of the PATRIOT Act and the Connecticut Four. Text of the paper here (PDF). A hat tip to Resource Shelf

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