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Privacy Please?

Privacy. In theory, I’m all for it. In theory I would like to think that people shouldn’t be keeping tabs on me. In theory I would think I shouldn’t be keeping tabs on other people. And there are a lot of librarians who have adopted privacy as one of the primary concerns of their services. (There’s rather a thought-provoking piece over at Library Juice on the topic.) But please don’t lynch me when I confess that there are some aspects of privacy that I just can’t get worked up about.

For example, this morning I heard a piece on NPR that basically said that if you’re driving a car built in the last 5 years there’s a really good chance that it has a tracking device or an “event recorder” built into it. As I listened to the interviewer and interviewee discuss how this violates personal privacy, I found myself unable to care whether people knew what speed I’d been going when I crashed, or how many miles my average trip was. “But that’s just aggregate data,” I told myself, “What if I knew that they could plot my trips, or pinpoint my location at any time.” Just then, the reporter said that in some cases, this would be possible. And still, I had a hard time caring. I mean, I care. And I think people should know when they are transmitting this type of information. And I think they should be able to opt out. But in my head, those are slightly different issues.

Maybe it’s because I’ve gotten used to the idea that cookies, IP address tracking, and referrers online can pretty much guarantee that whoever wants to can figure out exactly what I do online at all times. Maybe it’s because I’m too young and naive to realize what evil could be done to me if people know where my car has gone, or (to bring this to the library) what books I check out, or articles I read.

But with all this privacy talk circulating, it was really good to read Paul Miller’s take on it. Up until that point, I’d thought I really must be stupid because everybody else knew privacy was the most important thing about libraries.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t think that privacy isn’t important. I think it’s very important. But I think that we need to stop assuming that our users would run screaming from the idea that we could track how often they stop in to the library, or log in to our databases from off campus, or search for books rather than articles, or anything like that. Some of them, many perhaps, wouldn’t care. And we could learn a lot from them. What if we had varying levels of privacy and let the users choose? What if we could use this type of tracking to build recommender systems into our databases? The possibilities are endless. And as long as we provided an easy opt-out option, I don’t see the harm.

But then, I don’t see the harm of a transmitter in my car (if I ever buy a new enough one). So maybe I’m not a good judge.

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