We protect each library user’s right to privacy and confidentiality with respect to information sought or received and resources consulted, borrowed, acquired or transmitted.
American Library Association Code of Ethics
Yesterday I watched as Adobe Digital Editions told Adobe what book I was reading — title, author, publisher, year of publication, subject, description — and every page I’d read, and the time at which I read them. Adobe’s EULA states that it also collects my user ID and my general location.
I was able to watch this information be collected because it was all sent unencrypted, readable to any English-speaking human with access to any of the servers it passes through, in whatsoever jurisdiction, and also (if your wifi is unencrypted) the open air between my laptop and my router.
The Council of the American Library Association strongly recommends that… [circulation and other personally identifying] records shall not be made available to any agency of state, federal, or local government except pursuant to such process, order or subpoena as may be authorized under the authority of, and pursuant to, federal, state, or local law relating to civil, criminal, or administrative discovery procedures or legislative investigative power [and that librarians] resist the issuance of enforcement of any such process, order, or subpoena until such time as a proper showing of good cause has been made in a court of competent jurisdiction.”
Policy on confidentiality of library records
Your patrons’ reading information is already part of a warrantless dragnet. Because it has been transmitted in cleartext, the government needs no further assistance from you, your patrons, or your vendors to read it. Even were they to present you with a valid subpoena, you would be powerless to resist it, because you have, in effect, already written the information on your walls; you have no technical ability to protect it.
The American Library Association urges all libraries to…
- Limit the degree to which personally identifiable information is collected, monitored, disclosed, and distributed; and avoid creating unnecessary records; and
- Limit access to personally identifiable information to staff performing authorized functions; and…
- Ensure that the library work with its organization’s information technology unit to ensure that library usage records processed or held by the IT unit are treated in accordance with library records policies; and
- Ensure that those records that must be retained are secure; and
- Avoid library practices and procedures that place personally identifiable information on public view.”
If Adobe Digital Editions is part of your technical stack — if your library offers Overdrive or 3M Cloud Library or EBL or ebrary or Baker & Taylor Axis 360 or EBSCO or MyiLibrary or quite possibly other vendors I haven’t googled yet — you are not doing this. You cannot do this.
…ebook models make us choose. And I don’t mean choosing which catalog, or interface, or set of contract terms we want — though we do make those choices, and they matter. I mean that we choose which values to advance, and which to sacrifice. We’re making those values choices every time we sign a contract, whether we talk about it or not.
me, Library Journal, 2012
In 2012 I wrote and spoke about how the technical affordances, and legal restrictions, of ebooks make us choose among fundamental library values in a way that paper books have not. About how we were making those choices about values whether we made them explicitly or not. About how we default to choosing access over privacy.
We have chosen access over privacy, and privacy is not an option left for us to choose.
Because: don’t underestimate this. This is not merely a question of a technical slip-up in one version of an Adobe product.
This is about the fact that we do not have the technical skills to verify whether our products are in line with the values we espouse, the policies we hold, or even the contracts we sign, and we do not delegate this verification to others who do. Our failure to verify affects all the software we run.
This is about the fact that best practice in software is generally to log promiscuously; you’re trained, as a developer, to keep all the information, just in case it comes in handy. It takes a conscious choice (or a slipshod incompetence) not to do so. Libraries must demand that our vendors make that choice, or else we are in the awkward position of trusting to their incompetence. This affects all the software we run.
This is about the fact that encryption products are often hard to use, the fact that secure https is not yet the default everywhere, the fact that anyone can easily see traffic on the unencrypted wireless networks found at so many libraries, the fact that anyone with the password (which, if you’re a library, is everyone) can see all the traffic on encrypted networks too. This affects all the software we run.
This is about Adobe. It is not just about Adobe. These are questions we should ask of everything. These are audits we should be performing on everything. This affects all the software we run.
I am usually a middle-ground person. I see multiple sides to every argument, I entertain arguments that have shades of the abhorrent to find their shades of truth. This is not an issue where I can do that.
If you have chosen, whether actively or by default, to trust that the technical affordances of your software match both your contracts and your values, you have chosen to let privacy burn. If you’re content with that choice, have the decency to stand up and say it: to say that playing nice with your vendors matters more to you than this part or professional ethics, that protecting patron privacy is not on your list of priorities.
If you’re not content with that choice, it is time to set something else on fire.