Patrons schooling librarians on privacy

My big-data ethics course is underway; I’m quite enjoying the changes it’s making in how I evaluate what I read. (“Deontologist,” I muttered to myself while bookmarking another ethics-in-AI piece the other day.) It also explains why Tattle Tape’s been a bit quiet lately—with that, Data Doubles work, RADD work, and revising and Canvas-ing my other summer course, I have no time to breathe.

Still, some things I can’t miss posting about and still be me, so. Yesterday a group of citizens of Santa Cruz, California put out an amazing document detailing how the Santa Cruz Public Library bought into a surveillance-as-a-service deal from Gale, and how that deal stomped all over patron privacy.

Let me say this again, a little louder: a group of public-library patrons absolutely schooled their library on privacy. What has happened to my profession. What.

Some librarians there can be proud of themselves: the ones who, in the words of the report, “voiced concerns about patron privacy.” Thank you and well done, SCPL librarians who spoke up. Those SCPL librarians and/or administrators who overrode those concerns should do some serious soul-searching. Y’all messed entirely up, and you are being called to account for it; the citizen group is a local “Grand Jury” and they have the authority to require a response from SCPL library top brass.

To that top brass I say: admit your fault, apologize sincerely, dump Gale right back into the filthy surveillance-capitalism abyss whence it came, and copy out the ALA Library Bill of Rights one hundred times longhand in full public view. I don’t want to hear any empty platitudes or who-could-have-knowns out of you—and more importantly, that grand jury doesn’t want to hear that either.

In my time pushing privacy, I’ve seen some librarians say that we can be trusted with patron data because we care about privacy and ethics—we’re the good guys. To that I say what I said to my big-data ethics students: no one can be intrinsically good, or indeed be good at all. We can only do good—or not. We librarians only care about privacy and ethics insofar as we put that caring into action.

SCPL didn’t do that. I’m so glad SCPL’s patrons called out the problem so cogently and effectively—and I am bitterly sorry and ashamed that they had to.