A Publication of the Public Library Association Public Libraries Online

Collecting and Destroying Data? Preventing Government Surveillance

by on January 12, 2017

Libraries have a lot of uses for big data. It can reveal useful information for librarians, archivists, researchers, publishers, and authors. The OverDrive App provides libraries with a great deal of data about e book and audiobook borrows, use, and returns. Some libraries have their own dedicated apps, like The City Library app created for the Salt Lake City Public Library system in Utah. This app integrates the 3M Cloud Library, OverDrive, and OneClickdigital into a single portal where patrons can borrow, return, and access library content. What does this set of mobile analytics data tell us about users and their behavior?

Digital Data

Retention Data: Once users sign up, how long do they continue to use your library app? For some, digital borrowing is simply a novelty, something they try a few times and discard. For many libraries, this information is vital to persuade decision makers to continue to invest in the digital side of libraries. Large retention numbers mean the library is reaching and keeping patrons engaged digitally.

Engagement: This data reveals how much a user engages with digital services and which ones. Want to prove the library should invest in digital audiobooks? This app data reveals those trends not in a general level, but specific to your library and patrons in your local area.

Frequency or Usage Interval: How often do patrons log into and use your library app? Are digital borrows overtaking physical ones, and by how much/how much does the library save in lost or stolen books and resources by checking them out digitally instead?

All  this data serves to provide a picture of digital usage of the library, but when a user logs in, they reveal more than this, and it holds more than just library interest.

Physical Data

When someone signs up for a library card, a great deal of personal information is gathered. Name, address, date of birth, and social security number are stored on library servers. Of course, this is done to protect library assets. Where will you go to find books that have not been returned? How will you file reports that will impact the individual’s credit report and keep them from doing the same to other libraries?

It’s a logical step. Add in automated or digital checkout services even in person in the library, and even the smallest city library holds a vast amount of user data, a fact that has not gone unnoticed by hackers and other identity thieves. This is illustrated by the data breach at the Arkansas Library Association in June.

Blended Data

The real interest comes from a blend of digital and physical data, and this is where the government’s interest comes in. Not long ago, a checkout of The Anarchist’s Bible would get you on a watch list. But in the age of digital checkouts and widely available information, there’s more activity that could get you noticed.

The election of Donald Trump and his call for surveillance of Muslims and other groups has libraries and other organizations even more concerned about privacy laws and exactly what information, if any, they have to share with the federal government if asked.

Think of this entirely fictional scenario: an individual becomes a person of interest for whatever reason to a national security agency. With a subpoena, they request library records and discover through app and physical data the person’s address, phone number, social security number, where they work, and even where they were when they checked out certain digital items.

In the past, libraries have carefully released only the data specifically named in court documents, but the potential exists for courts to authorize a much wider request. In the interest of retaining patrons and respect for their privacy, libraries are responding to the election by changing privacy policies and what data they store and keep. Many libraries, including the New York Public Library, have promised to retain data only as long as it is needed to continue checking out books and materials, and to destroy all other data as soon as possible. 

As useful as checkout data, frequency of use, and other data could be to libraries, it seems like if they are retained at all, they will be anonymized and used to track trends rather than personalizing library services to individuals. This is a partial loss to both libraries and patrons, as an Amazon-like experience that tailored what apps showed users according to their personal preferences and geographic location would be both convenient and informative.

But the cost to personal privacy and security, and what it might reveal if that data was subpoenaed or worse, stolen, is too great a risk. Where other businesses are gathering and using data to enhance user experience and provide better customer service, libraries will delete it.

Although this protects the public from large hacker data breaches such as those at eBay, Heartland, and Experian, the primary reason is to prevent government surveillance, something that should concern all of us, whether we fall into targeted groups or not.

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