Magazine article American Libraries

The Crawford Files: Time for a Privacy Audit

Magazine article American Libraries

The Crawford Files: Time for a Privacy Audit

Article excerpt

My June/July column included this throwaway paragraph: "How's your 2003 privacy audit going? Can you assure readers that their circulation histories are private? You haven't done a privacy audit? You should."

Silly me. I assumed that systems vendors and librarians had learned the lessons of the 1970s--that today's library automation systems automatically sever the link between patron and item as soon as the item is returned, or at worst, as soon as the item is borrowed again. That doesn't assure confidentiality (it's still possible to build circulation histories from backup tapes), but sensible institutions use rotating backups, which limits reconstruction possibilities.

Not so simple

Then I spoke to a meeting of librarians in an affiliated group of public colleges and universities. I went to some of the group discussions that made up the rest of the meeting. The systems librarians held an eyeopening session.

These institutions all use the same online system vendor. I won't name any of the librarians, because they may have mended their ways, but they claim the system default is to retain circulation history. You can turn the default off, but you have to know that you need to turn it off.

I was further flabbergasted to hear representatives from several institutions say they had not changed the default: They were preserving records of who borrowed what. One of them said, "Well, we keep the history, but we preserve confidentiality."

I had a three-word response to that: USA Patriot Act. Maybe this group's state has a law that protects confidentiality of those records, but the federal law appears to override state laws.

Most of those attending encouraged me to write this column: It might give them more clout to get the system defaults changed.

If so, here's the simple statement: It is, in my view, irresponsible to retain circulation histories that identify who borrowed what for any significant length of time alter items are returned, except under special circumstances and with the clear and positive agreement of the patron. It violates the fundamental principles of librarianship and it probably means you're lying to your patrons, implicitly or explicitly. It may also mean you're violating state law.

I don't believe there's any excuse for maintaining those records (except for special patron categories, on their request). …

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