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Big Brother Through the Library

by on April 24, 2017

On Monday April 3, 2017 President Trump signed a bill repealing Internet privacy rules.  Now Internet service providers can use consumer data without permission. This includes browsing history, geolocation and financial and medical information. Most directly this can be used to create targeted advertisement.  But one has to wonder, what else can this information be used for, and how will this impact libraries?

Clearly patron data (from Internet use at the library) will be able to be harvested. This will undoubtedly have rippling effects for libraries. There is the obvious; patron’s information will not be secure. But this will now be true for everyone, everywhere and is a larger political issue. What concerns me are other, unintended factors. The most obvious for me is the concept of targeted advertisement. All who are online experience the eerie occurrences of push advertising. Search for information about a lawn mower and suddenly every ad that comes up on your computer screen is for that specific product. This is annoying, but if the push advertising is going to start surfacing from information pulled from what we generally think of as private communications (email versus Google searches), what will that mean for what pops up for our patrons? For those of us who do not filter, will this increase the visibility of inappropriate sites?  Will this allow private concerns to become more public, such as library patron’s health issues?

Another issue is intentional spying. More than once in my library I’ve had a parent or spouse actively try to spy on their child or significant other. I can imagine there have been even more nefarious attempts also, that staff was unaware of.  But since we know this actively occurs, what does this situation and newly revised law mean for the library?

Can a patron seek out our ISP and buy our information? Can a spy linger until a patron is done on a particular computer, and then use that computer to see what ads pop up? Whereas before the ad might reflect the person’s desire for shoes or Amazon book selection, what might it include now?

Further, will we have an economy of scale problem? For example, it is one consideration if an individual’s Internet use is purchased, but if a library’s use is purchased, it could reflect hundreds of people. This could be a convenient one stop shopping database for an entire community.

I am troubled by these thoughts, both privately and professionally. I am equally troubled that I am not sure how much of the public is currently aware of this. I am sure I am not the only librarian with concerns. The question is what can we do about it?

Prior to this law being repealed I posted the information by our public access computers. I will now revise that posting again. But I believe it’s time to start discussing what else we can do.

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