As the nation grapples with the Faustian choice between the right to know and the right to privacy, librarians should have a place at the table. From time immemorial they have struggled to balance the rights. Librarians have staunchly fought for open government and gone to jail to protect their patrons’ privacy against over-zealous government snooping. The fact is that librarians think a lot about information; as one observer writes, they are “information connoisseurs.”
Thousands of librarians are gathered this week in Chicago where they will find grounding in traditional principles honed in a print environment to face the challenges of a digital world. Though the ramifications are incalculable, none is more center stage than those that juxtapose the dilemma between access and privacy now challenging the nation.
Unreconstructed advocate for open government that I am, I am proud of the library profession for its staunch commitment to privacy. Wise professionals have anticipated the threats to patrons’ privacy. Towards this end the American Library Association’s Office of Intellectual Freedom maintains a robust library of digital resources devoted to the principle that the preserving “the freedom to read and receive ideas anonymously is at the heart of individual liberty in a democracy.”
In a recent position paper the Office of Intellectual Freedom directly faces the tension between the right to access and the right to privacy. The report makes the clear distinction between personal and public information. At the same time OIF anticipates the confusion facing Americans in the wake of leaks of government and attendant charges and challenges:
When the right to privacy is eroded or stripped away, people are more likely to abandon or curtail their exploration of unpopular and unorthodox points of view. This chilling effect puts the intellectual development of our citizenry at risk. The very character of the American mind, which is premised on open inquiry, is thereby robbed of the free flow of ideas that makes innovation possible.
In the past, closing a curtain, sealing a record, or simply choosing not to share one’s information could protect privacy. But emerging technologies are compromising privacy rights and changing social norms. Computers, online networks and databases collect and store personal information, which may then be freely traded among government offices, corporations, and law enforcement agencies without an individual’s knowledge or consent. Few people protest when they are required to give away their personal information Identity theft and data breaches are occurring more frequently – confirmation that individuals can no longer feel confident that the institutions holding their information are treating it with due care and consideration.
Other privacy rights are equally at risk. Concerns about national security and crime have spurred political interest groups and law enforcements agencies to question traditional expectations of privacy. These groups are now advocating changes in the law that diminish stator privacy protections and permit the government to peer into personal lives.
Librarians who have their professional fingers on the pulse of the public and of the technology know that in a digital age Americans must be responsible for their own information privacy. As usual, they know that ultimate responsibility for protection of individual rights an informed public. The concern is that many people who routinely use public access facilities are unaware of the potential intrusion on their right to privacy. As part of Choose Privacy Week 2013 the ALA posted a useful tip sheet for patrons entitled Protect Your Privacy While Using Public Computers & Wi-Fi appropriate for libraries or any other public setting.
The usual suspects – politicians, propagandists and pundits – would do well to update their stereotypes and pull up some chairs for the librarians who have spent their professional lives cogitating digital age dichotomies long before they went viral.