Top Tech Trends Focus on Privacy

Using technology to keep patron data safe

January 26, 2020

Marshall Breeding at the podium with (left to right) Victoria Blackmer, Alison Macrina, and Elisandro Cabada
Marshall Breeding at the podium with (left to right) Victoria Blackmer, Alison Macrina, and Elisandro Cabada. Photo: Rebecca Lomax/American Libraries

The Library and Information Technology Association’s (LITA) Top Tech Trends session is a popular mainstay at American Library Association conferences. But the session at this year’s Midwinter Meeting & Exhibits in Philadelphia had a theme for the first time: technology and patron privacy.

Moderator Ida Joiner, senior librarian at the Universal Academy School in Irving, Texas, was joined by panelists Victoria Blackmer, assistant director of Robert R. Jones Public Library in Coal Valley, Illinois;  Marshall Breeding, independent library consultant; Elisandro Cabada, medical and bioengineering librarian at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign; and Alison Macrina, founder and executive director of the Library Freedom Project.

Blackmer spoke on the internet of things (IoT), the network of connected physical objects that can be accessed through the internet, including cars, vending machines, and appliances. Smartphones and watches, for example, have built-in sensors that wirelessly report data on the user’s location and other activity. The potential applications are limitless, Blackmer noted, but user data collection and privacy are fundamental weaknesses—where does the information go, and who has access?

Blackmer said she believes libraries could use the IoT for inventory collection and control, drone delivery of materials for homebound or remote patrons, and smart lighting or energy systems. IoT can and will improve access to materials without compromising privacy, she said.

Breeding showed how libraries provide security and privacy—or not—through their websites. Websites should be treated like circulation records, he argued, assuring patrons that no one can see what they read, which is fairly simple to accomplish with end-to-end encryption.

Most browsers will alert users to nonencrypted sites now, he said. “The browser is telling the user, ‘Don’t trust this website, somebody could be listening.’” He estimates about 6% of academic libraries and 15% of public libraries are not using encryption, numbers that have definitely improved since he began tracking this data. But, he said, “I still find it disturbing there are any left in this category.”

Breeding also advised libraries to evaluate their sites’ ad trackers, whether traffic sent to Google Analytics is anonymized, and to secure any self-service information through a virtual private network.

The global market for virtual reality (VR) is expected to reach $27 million by 2022, Cabada said. Libraries are one of the most popular venues for VR use for several reasons—libraries are informal learning environments, they democratize access to tech, and understanding emerging tech is information literacy.

As VR becomes more affordable, scalable, and adaptable, Cabada said, it is being integrated into teaching, learning, and research across departments ranging from journalism and languages to the sciences and archaeology. However, this technology comes with concerns for patron privacy—the top VR headset and software maker Oculus is owned by Facebook, for example.

“You can’t have intellectual freedom if you don’t have privacy,” said Macrina. Her organization cautions libraries against adopting technology for its own sake, pointing out that it often comes with other issues like surveillance. Tech companies are the most powerful companies in the world, she said. They got their money through user data and use it to affect global politics, particularly concerning people who are already marginalized.

She advised libraries to be wary of vendors trying to sell them products for facial recognition (which she said has been shown to be flawed and biased, misidentifying black people, women, and children at very high rates) or consumer devices like Amazon Ring—a doorbell with a camera and microphone that are always on. These devices can be hacked, and Amazon owns all the footage and engages local police to share information.

Macrina did mention a positive trend—she has seen an upsurge in privacy advocacy among librarians.

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