Privacy in Focus at Top Tech Trends Panel | ALA Midwinter 2020

Corporations, technology companies, and government entities are gathering more data than ever about people, and libraries have an important role to play in educating the public about surveillance, personal information, and online privacy, according to panelists at the Library Information Technology Association’s (LITA) Top Tech Trends panel.

LITA logoCorporations, technology companies, and government entities are gathering more data than ever about people, and libraries have an important role to play in educating the public about surveillance, personal information, and online privacy, according to panelists at the Library Information Technology Association’s (LITA) Top Tech Trends panel on January 26 at the 2020 American Library Association (ALA) Midwinter Meeting in Philadelphia.

“You can’t have intellectual freedom if you don’t have privacy,” said Alison Macrina, founder and executive director of the privacy advocacy organization Library Freedom Project and its affiliated Library Freedom Institute training program.

Macrina was joined on the panel by Victoria Blackmer, assistant director of the Robert R. Jones Public Library, Coal Valley, IL; Marshall Breeding, independent consultant, author, and editor of Library Technology Guides; and Elisandro Cabada, medical and bioengineering librarian, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Ida Joiner, librarian for the Universal Academy in Irving, TX, moderated.

In a change from the panel’s typical format, privacy was covered by all four of the session’s panelists, with each addressing different aspects, ranging from internet of things (IoT) devices to issues with library vendors.

 

NEIGHBORHOOD WATCH

“When we talk about big tech companies, let’s be clear, we’re talking about the most powerful companies in the world,” Macrina said. “Facebook, Amazon, Google, Microsoft, all of these companies are massive, multi-billion dollar industries that have gotten their money through our data. They can and do influence things like geopolitics. They influence the way that we think.” The power and influence of data-gathering companies is continuing to grow, and people who are already marginalized are often the most affected, she said.

Macrina discussed the growth of facial recognition technology, describing it as “hugely problematic software…. All of the encoded biases that we’re seeing in other artificial intelligence and algorithmic decision making are evident in facial recognition” software, she said. Specifically, current software misidentifies minorities, women, and children at significantly higher rates than it does white men.

“False positives are a bad thing when we’re talking about facial recognition,” Macrina said. “The [American Civil Liberties Union] ACLU did a study where they fed Amazon’s facial recognition interface with images from the [U.S.] Congressional Black Caucus, and almost every single one of [them]…were misidentified as people in a mugshot database. These are the real-world implications of this kind of technology.”

In a related development, there has been a recent, significant rise in the deployment of consumer surveillance devices, such as Amazon’s Ring doorbells. Equipped with always-on cameras and microphones, these small devices upload video and audio into Amazon’s cloud servers. The company owns all of the footage generated by Rings, and has entered into information sharing agreements with more than 500 police departments around the United States, Macrina noted.

Libraries should keep track of developments in consumer technology and privacy, not only because it impacts patrons who might ask for information and guidance, but also because this technology could ultimately enter the library sphere. For example, Macrina said that she had heard someone suggest that facial recognition technology could be a convenient alternative to library cards.

“If it hasn’t come up in libraries yet, if our vendors aren’t trying to sell us on it, it’s going to happen, and we have to be ready for it,” she said.

On a positive note, Macrina added that she has been encouraged by the “real upsurge” in privacy advocacy within the library profession in recent years.

 

MANY THINGS

Ring doorbells are part of a growing category of IoT consumer devices that offer users unique features enabled by a constant connection to the internet. But as Blackmer explained, these conveniences come at a cost.

“IoT is a network with connected physical objects which can be accessed through the internet,” Blackmer said. “It’s not limited to traditional devices—it has uses for security systems, cars, electronic appliances, thermostats, lights in commercial and household environments, speaker systems, vending machines, alarm clocks, and so much more. The idea is that the whole world becomes connected.”

Yet many of these devices treat security as an afterthought, and most people aren’t accustomed to managing home networks with more than a few devices connected.

“The fundamental weakness of [IoT] is that it increases the number of devices behind a network’s firewall,” Blackmer said. “A decade ago, we only had to be worried about connecting computers. Now we have to be concerned with our smartphones, tablets, watches, and many IoT devices.”

Aside from introducing new security vulnerabilities to home networks, many of these devices are—by design—constantly collecting data about users.

“Much of this data that is collected is personal,” she noted. “Where does it all go, and who has access to it? Is it possible that a smartwatch company could track your personal health data, only to sell it to insurance companies? Could other personal data collected by your smart home be sold to marketers around the world?”

However, there are also many existing and potential applications for IoT in libraries, ranging from enhanced inventory control to drone delivery services to targeted patron messaging via beacons. And IoT lighting and climate control systems can help libraries reduce energy consumption, saving money and reducing a building’s environmental impact. Blackmer said that libraries recognize that implementing IoT technologies in accordance to the core principles of librarianship will be “a balancing act.”

 

SECURE TRANSFER

Breeding focused on ensuring patron privacy when patrons access a library’s electronic resources.

“When the library provides access to content to its users, how users interact with that should be confidential to the fullest extent,” he said. Patron use of a library’s website or electronic resources should be considered “almost like a circulation transaction…. There are things that we do with circulation records to ensure that they can’t be shared, they can’t be subpoenaed,” giving assurance to patrons that nobody can know what they read.

The same should be true for a library’s website, Breeding said. “It shouldn’t be possible for any third party to have access to the interactions [patrons have] with library-provided content through the website.”

Library websites should have end-to-end encryption, which has become an essential feature for commercial websites. Yet some libraries are still lagging behind, Breeding noted. Fifteen percent of U.S. public libraries and almost six percent of academic libraries are still potentially exposing the search behavior of their patrons to unknown third parties, he said.

“It’s relatively simple and inexpensive. You have to buy and implement a digital certificate…. But we’re way past the deadlines. If you don’t encrypt your website, [users] are going to receive a warning from any of the major browsers saying that this site is not trustworthy.”

 

THEY’RE EVERYWHERE

Cabada began his portion of the panel by discussing the growing number of applications for virtual and augmented reality in academic environments.

“The global VR market is expected to reach $26 billion by 2022,” he said. “That’s only two years away, and that’s a very conservative figure. I’ve seen other figures that go up to hundreds of billions.”

The speed of innovation in the field has been accelerating in recent years with the launch of headsets such as the Oculus Rift, Oculus Go, and HTC Vive. Schools, libraries, and academic institutions have been utilizing the technology to develop immersive learning environments for a wide variety of applications. Biology students can experience hands-on exploration of cells. Architecture and design students can be transported to far-away buildings. Literature students can travel to different times.

“Since 2016, VR has become much more affordable, scalable, and adaptable,” Cabada said. “The first headsets were about $1,000. You can get a really excellent headset now for $400, and that number is only going to drop.”

The technology is increasingly being integrated in to teaching, learning, and research, he added, noting that the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s library recently put together a call for proposals for grants to gauge interest in VR. They received 63 submissions from 37 different departments “from journalism to athletics to engineering to business…. There’s a lot of interest in VR.”

LITA logoHowever, Oculus, the VR headset developer that is driving much of the hardware innovation, is owned by Facebook, a company that has been embroiled in several user data scandals during the past decade.

Facebook “has had a lot of issues with selling data without informing users…. When it comes to virtual reality, it’s no different. Not only does Facebook control the equipment, they also largely are controlling access to the [VR] experiences. Your data is in their hands,” along with a very limited number of other companies that host or develop VR content.

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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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