Surveillance, Privacy, and the Troublesome Tech Landscape | ALA Midwinter 2021

“The troublesome tech landscape is a vast and ever-evolving place,” said Callan Bignoli, library director of Olin College of Engineering. Needham, MA, kicking off an hour-long presentation on technology and surveillance—including the recent impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on academic surveillance—at the American Library Association's 2021 Midwinter Virtual Meeting.

“The troublesome tech landscape is a vast and ever-evolving place,” said Callan Bignoli, library director of Olin College of Engineering. Needham, MA, kicking off an hour-long presentation on technology and surveillance—including the recent impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on academic surveillance. Her analysis was part of this year’s Core Top Tech Trends panel at the American Library Association’s (ALA) Midwinter Virtual Meeting. In a change from prior years, all Top Tech Trends panelists focused on the potential dangers of new technologies that libraries may be using now or in the future.

“It may often feel like you are powerless in this sea of tech that is so embedded in our lives that we don’t even recognize it for what it is anymore,” Bignoli said. “But we are not powerless. We can take many different types of forms of resistance against these things.”

Bignoli framed the presentation with quotes from four books, which she described as a growing subgenre of critical technology theory. These were The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power, by Shoshana Zuboff; Automating Inequality: How High-Tech Tools Profile, Police, and Punish the Poor, by Virginia Eubanks; Dark Matters: On the Surveillance of Blackness, by Simone Browne; and Race After Technology, by Ruha Benjamin.

“These books all have a central theme of unpacking that imbalance and bias in technology, and how that affects our society,” Bignoli explained.

The first was Shoshana Zuboff quoting computer scientist Mark Weiser in The Age of Surveillance Capitalism—“The most profound technologies are those that disappear. They weave themselves into the fabric of everyday life until they are indistinguishable from it.”

The quote is from years ago, but it is applicable to the present day, “where we have smartphones, smart watches, smart fridges, you name it, there are ‘smart everythings’ these days,” Bignoli said. “The problem with this is that we are inviting all kinds of surveillance that we don’t fully understand into our lives, into the most intimate spaces of our existence [via ‘Internet of Things’ devices] that are essentially always on and always watching us.... The issue with this ubiquitous computing and the ‘smart everythings’ is that everything about your life can now be commodified and monetized” by companies that own this technology and use it to track and analyze your behavior.”

The next quote, from Race After Technology, states, “The power of the New Jim Code is that it allows racist habits and logics to enter through the backdoor of tech design, in which the humans who create the algorithms are hidden from view.”

Benjamin’s “New Jim Code” discusses “what happens when you have a technology that is created in a society that inherently reinforces and hesitates to move away from the biases and power dynamics that have created the current moment that we’re in,” Bignoli said. “We also don’t have very many self-aware technology creators. There are certainly many people who are critical of it…but we don’t have many people working in high-tech companies who are concerned about [these] biases that their technologies may be recreating…. Despite our claims that technology is neutral, and that we are somehow above it all, we cannot possibly make those claims…. We are increasingly detached from the people who are creating these technologies.”

The third quote, “the digital revolution has warped to fit the shape of our still-inequitable world,” from Virginia Eubanks’s Automating Inequality, reinforced these points. And the fourth, “there is historical precedent of the [surveillance and securitization] machine turning inward and seeking the enemy within,” from Simone Browne’s Dark Matters, “is maybe one of the most chilling,” Bignoli said.

“We have begun to not even really know where the boundaries of what is acceptable to surveil and what isn’t are being drawn,” she said. “And we don’t know, at any time, if our actions or behavior may be flagged in some way as inappropriate or problematic. The way that technology has made itself invisible and subsumed itself into our lives makes it so that we have an increasing corpus of potentially bad actions or things that could be seen as bad in the eyes of some that are also being tracked and surveilled. And that means we don’t really know who has the power to…take a swipe at us at any given time.”

Bignoli went on to discuss the “division of learning,” a concept covered by Zuboff, who notes that there are many people who do not have technology skills, or the opportunity or background to develop technology skills to thrive in a technology influenced society. “So there are people who are going to succeed in this new reality, and there are people who will fall behind,” Bignoli said. “And there is an increasing amount of obfuscation created and put forth by the tech companies about how their products work, so this means an infinite amount of catch-up for the workforce.… Librarians actually find themselves in the position of having to act as trainers and teachers for these tech companies.”

Similarly, there is a division between people who know how to use secure forms of communication, and about surveillance threats and protecting their personal privacy, and others who don’t know why the tracking done by social media companies or Gmail could be problematic. “As it stands, it’s a bit of a luxury, or a rarefied skill, to know how to keep yourself safe…and relatively unwatched and unsurveilled online,” Bignoli said.



In addition to biometric surveillance and facial recognition surveillance in public spaces, Bignoli also covered library-specific privacy threats, including the growing use of user tracking on academic publisher platforms. During the past year, the COVID-19 pandemic led to a sudden shift toward remote and hybrid learning environments. Vendors such as Proctorio have stepped in to offer test proctoring services that purport to prevent cheating on tests that students take online in their homes or dorm rooms.

However, software like this is made to monitor students using their laptop webcams, microphones, and search histories while they take tests. It uses facial recognition technology to identify students and check to see whether they look away from their screen, or whether there is anyone else in the room with them. These platforms collect a lot of information about students, and some are beginning to complain that there is not enough transparency about how this data is stored.

There are also practical issues when many students lack consistent broadband connections in remote environments. The software “attempts to judge where it thinks you should be in order to take a test. So, if you are in the library parking lot or a Taco Bell parking lot trying to siphon off their Wi-Fi…you may get flagged for cheating,” Bignoli said.

Separately, publishers such as Elsevier have been looking into ways to crack down on piracy of academic publications from services such as Sci-Hub, and “there seems to be a discussion around how surveilling people more [and] collecting more data from them will enable more security—will make it so that these papers don’t leak out onto the open web,” Bignoli said. “But the exchange there is that there will be increased tracking of librarians and researchers. And the data that’s being siphoned off from these efforts is going to the vendors themselves.”

Unlike commercial products that aggregate user data, Bignoli predicted that academic publishers are unlikely to use the data they collect on researchers to subsidize the cost of their products. “Instead, what they’ll do is try to create more prediction products…and sell them back to the very librarians who are queasy about allowing them to [collect] this data in the first place.”

Citing a talk by Cody Hanson, Interim Director, Technology Strategies for the University of Minnesota Libraries, Bignoli noted that tracking user behavior on academic publisher platforms is not new. “They’re already using…tools like Adobe Audience Manager, Google Analytics, [and] Oracle Marketing Cloud to track people via browser fingerprinting, account information, and the like,” adding that Hanson argues that it may not be possible for libraries to provide meaningful assurance of privacy or anonymity to users of these licensed products.

“Something we all need to challenge ourselves to think about as librarians, as we exist in this world of tons and tons of data…is weighing the benefits of convenience vs. privacy,” Bignoli said. “We hopefully are already erring on the side of privacy over convenience.… There are things about how our systems are designed that make it easier for us to do that than other types of organizations or industries. One example in particular is that we don’t share people’s borrowing habits with other people.”

However, librarians will increasingly encounter situations where vendors or even patrons push for conveniences that sacrifice privacy, and should be prepared to explain such compromises, and enable patrons to opt out of services that track their usage of library resources.

Bignoli concluded by describing librarians and library staff as uniquely positioned to push back on these trends. She urged viewers to continue paying attention to surveillance and privacy trends by reading and recommending critical technology theory books, listening to podcasts and staying on top of the news, and working with pro-privacy groups such as the Library Freedom Project and its Library Freedom Institute. Then advocate for privacy, and talk with patrons and colleagues, “because libraries believe in a commitment to privacy and a commitment to access for all.”

Bignoli was joined on the three-hour Top Tech Trends panel by Jeanie Austin PhD, Library and  Information Science, from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign; Thomas Ferren, program officer for ALA's new Core division; John Mack Freeman, Suwanee branch manager for Gwinnett County Public Library, GA; and TJ Lamanna, emerging technologies librarian at the Cherry Hill Public Library, NJ. The presentations are available on demand for registered attendees, and Bignoli’s presentation begins at the 56 minute mark. Check back for additional coverage of Top Tech Trends.

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Matt Enis


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

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