Privacy, Digital Inclusion, and Remote Programming Are LITA’s Top Tech Trends | ALA Virtual 2020

Seven experts discussed long-term trends that are becoming even more significant in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The COVID-19 pandemic has led to the rapid adoption of biometric surveillance, software that enables all-day monitoring of employees who are working from home, physical surveillance tools such as robots that ostensibly monitor social distancing, and other technology tools that are almost certain to accelerate the erosion of personal privacy. Tech companies will take advantage “of an understandably fearful public and a willing set of state officials to help them realize a totally new set of norms,” said Alison Macrina, founder and director of the Library Freedom Project, during the Library Information Technology Association’s (LITA) Top Technology Trends panel at the American Library Association’s ALA Virtual 2020 online conference held last week—the last such panel under the LITA flag, as the association has been dissolved and reconstituted as part of ALA’s new CORE division, together with two others.

“In the name of controlling the pandemic and addressing the current crisis, we’re being introduced to a whole set of high tech ‘solutions’ that don’t address the complexity of our current situation, nor what public health officials are asking for, [but] result in greater power for big tech companies,” Macrina said. “I think a lot of us in libraries have been worried for a long time about the kind of techno dystopian future that has been creeping up on us—the loss of privacy, the increase of different surveillance applications and tools. And, unfortunately, I think in the current crisis, all of those fears are being realized.”

Macrina was joined at the virtual event by panelists Lisa Calvert, virtual services librarian and marketing coordinator, St. Johns County Public Library System, FL; Laura Cole, director of BiblioTech in San Antonio, TX; Matthew Hunter, digital scholarship librarian, Florida State University Libraries; Jeremy Kurtz, director of systems and security, Arizona State University; Alexandra Phillips, assistant branch manager and youth services librarian for St. Johns County Public Library System, FL; and Liz Sundermann-Zinger, virtual and media services manager at Baltimore County Public Library, MD. Moderated by Tammy Wolf, director of online strategy for Arizona State University, the panel focused on three themes: privacy and security, digital inclusion and access, and remote programming, via presentations pre-recorded in mid-May.

 

SPYING ON STUDENTS

Although Hunter focused primarily on academic libraries, he echoed many of Macrina’s concerns, noting that distance learning practices adopted due to the COVID-19 pandemic are expanding the use of invasive learning analytics and test proctoring/surveillance software for students, as well as productivity tracking software for academic staff.

Transitioning to remote learning in the middle of a semester led “to questions on how to effectively adjudicate student work and fairly detail what we’re grading,” Hunter said. “What I want to specifically focus on is the invasion of privacy that we’re asking students to agree to and consent to without much of a choice.”

Students “are already at the bottom end of a pretty vast power dynamic” in terms of testing or submitting work for grading, so they aren’t in a great position to argue that test proctoring software is an invasion of privacy. But that software “records students’ screens, records student use, takes over screens and webcams to record the inside of someone’s room, and asks students to show all aspects of a room in which a student is working in the hope that there might be some way to algorithmically flag ‘suspicious’ activity,” Hunter said.

Worse still, commercial vendors typically treat algorithms as trade secrets, so there are “problems that come with having a black box approach to what this proctoring algorithm is flagging as problematic, and how this really pushes us to distrust and mistrust our students, rather than focusing on sound pedagogical activity,” he said.

 

SECURITY IS CRUCIAL TO PRIVACY

In a presentation on institutional security, Kurtz pointed out that privacy and security are closely related. “Information security is a very critical component of privacy,” he explained, noting that the professional information security community typically frames the topic with three pillars: confidentiality (ensuring a patron’s personal data isn’t disclosed unknowingly or excessively), integrity (ensuring that data is reliable and protected from unauthorized changes), and availability (ensuring that patrons can access resources, which includes preventing attacks that might make those resources unavailable).

Kurtz noted that while more and more services and resources are moving to the cloud and away from on-premise server management, this doesn’t mean that libraries no longer need to manage information security. Libraries should review vendor security policies and processes with an eye toward the nature of the data they will be storing. “If you have public data, then the security review process doesn’t need nearly as much scrutiny as if you’re storing patron data, for example.”

 

DIGITAL INCLUSION

Cole, director of San Antonio’s all-digital BiblioTech library, shifted the panel to digital inclusion, noting that “COVID-19 has illuminated starkly those divisions between the people that are able to function at a full capacity within society and those who are limited in that capacity for various reasons—digital inclusion being one of them.”

When BiblioTech opened in 2013, a key part of its mission was promoting and expanding digital inclusion in its community, Cole said. As coronavirus shutdowns began in Texas, the library was able to transition to a work-from-home model, and with its focus on digital content, was well positioned to help Bexar County, TX, employees avoid furloughs by taking the option to do in-home training.

“What we came to understand very quickly was that many [municipal] employees did not have internet access at home,” Cole said, later adding that some also didn’t have home computers.

Stopgap measures such as loaning out BiblioTech’s Wi-Fi hotspots helped somewhat, but “you can’t solve digital inclusion by hot-spotting it away,” she said.

Cole also discussed BiblioTech’s partnerships with local public housing developments. Through a federal grant, BiblioTech offers technology courses that, upon completion, award a free laptop or desktop PC to graduates.

“Meeting that need when our library branches are closed down is yet another challenge,” Cole said.

Sundermann-Zinger also spoke about digital equity, agreeing that these challenges have “come into even sharper relief in our communities during this pandemic.”

As Baltimore County Public Library shut down branches temporarily, one of the first actions it took to address those issues was to install new Wi-Fi boosters to the exteriors of all locations “so that customers could access our internet for free from the safety and comfort of their cars, or sitting—spaced appropriately—in the grass around the buildings,” she said.

The library also equipped bookmobiles with mobile Wi-Fi and parked them at food distribution locations, COVID testing sites, and other areas of need.

“The first week that they were available, the county asked us if they could borrow them,” Sundermann-Zinger said. “And we parked them at the drive-up [COVID-19] testing facilities they set up at the fairgrounds. So, not only were the testers using them, but also the people sitting in the hours-long wait in their cars to be tested could use [the library’s] internet.”

Separately, to retain staff during branch closures, the system set up a “help wanted” board on its intranet, enabling managers and leadership teams to advertise pandemic jobs, such as Zoom producer for people who needed help running virtual meetings, or recording videos for asynchronous social media programs.

 

REMOTE PROGRAMMING

Prior to a live Q&A chat session, Calvert and Phillips led a tag-team discussion of their remote programming at St. Johns County Public Library System in St. Augustine, FL.

With branches offering very limited services, the library was presenting four virtual programs every day. “We have a story time in the morning, [and] another children’s program at about 1:30,” Calvert said. “We have a program for adults at 3, and then we have another follow-up program in the evening at 7.”

Phillips noted that production standards were secondary to reaching out and making connections with patrons.

“We brought up the idea of offering a virtual story time. And the very next day on March 17 [after branch closures], we offered our first one,” Phillips said. “And I have to say, it was very no-frills. I propped up my phone on a chair in the kids’ area [of the closed library] and pretended the best that I could that all of my storytime kids were right in front of me.”

Separately, the library has been developing asynchronous remote content, such as a teen cooking challenges and LEGO challenges, in which the library launches a program at the beginning of the week, and participants submit entries by video or through chat during the remainder of the week.

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Matt Enis

menis@mediasourceinc.com

@MatthewEnis

Matt Enis (matthewenis.com) is Senior Editor, Technology for Library Journal.

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