Magazine article Computers in Libraries

How Should Privacy Be Protected in the Electronic Library?

Magazine article Computers in Libraries

How Should Privacy Be Protected in the Electronic Library?

Article excerpt

On a day when I have cleared a paper jam from the printer for the 15th time, I wonder if technology hasn't brought more complications than solutions to this profession. Of course, on a good day, when I've found the latest information on a new medication for an anxious patron, I'm pleased with the improved library service that information technology has made possible. But even then I can't totally ignore the added complexities that technology has brought to my work, especially in the area of legal and ethical questions.

Many of the legal and ethical issues we're struggling with are not really new--they've just been given a new twist by technology. Librarians have faced challenges to materials in the past; now we're struggling with demands to provide filtered access to the Internet. Issues surrounding copyright are also in the news right now as the courts ponder the challenges brought by the popular Napster service. Both filtering and copyright affect libraries, and most librarians that I know are working to educate themselves on the latest legal opinions. There is another issue, however, that has been mostly in the background, but is beginning to attract the attention of the media and lawmakers. That issue is privacy in the digital world.

Librarians have long believed that it was their duty to protect their patrons' privacy, and we've all read about colleagues who have refused to release circulation records to law enforcement officials. But what expectations of privacy should patrons have when using electronic resources in the library? Should we refuse to divulge the Web surfing practices of our patrons? Should patrons be protected from the next user at a public workstation who simply clicks the "back" button on the browser to see what had been viewed? If a patron uses the library to access his e-mail or make purchases using a credit card, are librarians responsible for ensuring that other patrons cannot access the personal information he input on a public access computer?

Finally, what is our responsibility if a patron uses a library computer to commit crimes such as sending threatening e-mail or committing auction fraud? I don't have the answers to these questions, and I'm not sure that the legal system in this country has determined the answers either, but as a librarian I need to be informed on the latest legal decisions on this important issue.

Finding Guidance and Information on the Web

The American Library Association (ALA) offers guidance on legal issues that affect librarians through its Washington Office, which has a presence on the ALA Web site. Privacy is one of the topics covered with a separate Web page devoted to it. However, the page does not have the depth of coverage that you'll find on the pages devoted to filtering or copyright. While ALA's position on the individual's right to privacy regarding what is read, researched, or accessed is deemed a "fundamental right," there is nothing more said about how to protect patron privacy in the library. Instead, this site directs visitors to other resources for further information.

One of the resources recommended by ALA for its overview of privacy issues is the Center for Democracy & Technology. This site features a self-described comprehensive privacy guide, tracking of legislative proposals, information on privacy-enhancing technologies, tips for protecting privacy, an overview of the issues, a resource library, and a discussion of government surveillance. Recent news stories on electronic privacy issues are high-lighted in the headlines section, with links to related resources. Other links on the site include resources on specific privacy concerns, publications, educational materials, and international privacy guidelines from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and from the European Union, which has issued a Directive on Data Protection. The section of the site devoted to privacy legislation also has a discussion of existing privacy protections including a guide to standing federal privacy laws. …

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