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Smarter Libraries through Technology: Protecting Patron Privacy

Smart Libraries Newsletter [May 2017]

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The ability for the technology systems of libraries to safeguard the privacy of patrons continues to be an issue of utmost importance. The library profession as a whole upholds the privacy of their patrons as they make use of library-provided resources. Most libraries also have privacy policies stating what data they collect about their patrons and how that data will be used or shared. Those values tend to be well understood and enforced in the realm of physical materials. How libraries safeguard patron privacy within their virtual presence appears to be much more uneven. In this issue of Smart Libraries Newsletter, we discuss the complexities of protecting patron privacy in both the physical and virtual arenas and present the results of a mini-study of the current state of practice of patron privacy on the websites of a selected group of large libraries. Unfortunately, this study reveals a fairly lax level of implementation of the technical mechanisms necessary to protect patron privacy as they make use of library resources via their library's websites and catalogs.

Safeguarding Circulation and Patron Profile Data

Protecting the confidentiality of circulation data related to the materials patrons borrow from libraries has become a wellestablished practice. The basic concern lies in eliminating any data beyond what is operationally necessary that identifies the materials a patron has borrowed. Libraries generally consider this data confidential. They treat any data that reveals the items consulted or borrowed by a patron with great care.

The circulation module of the integrated library system (ILS) manages data related to the inventory of content items owned by the library and maintains detailed records for each of its patrons eligible to borrow materials. Bibliographic records describe the title, subject, and other details, while item or holdings records the location of each copy and the library's unique identifiers. Patron records include significant personal information, such as name, address, and age. Many libraries also record sensitive identification numbers such as a driver's license or social security number. In some cases, credit card and financial data may be stored or managed through a PCI-compliant payment system.

When a patron borrows an item from the library, the circulation module will make a link between the patron record and the content item. The circulation transaction binds the item and patron records so the library knows what items are in use and therefore not available to other borrowers. The library also needs sufficient data to send notices to the patron when an item has not been returned by its due date as well as for other routine communications. Most libraries consider the data linking a borrower with an item as an operational necessity for active loans.

Once an item has been returned, the link between the item and the patron can be dissolved. From the perspective of managing circulation functions, this association is no longer essential. Some libraries, however, may choose to retain some information regarding the immediately previous borrower in case some problem arises, such as discovering that the item has become damaged.

Data relating to a circulation transaction can exist in a variety of locations. The circulation module will create a transaction record including the patron identifier, the item record number, and timestamps for when the item was borrowed or returned. Some systems will write the patron identifier into the item record as a convenient way for staff members to know the current or previous borrower. Patron records may include a list of items currently or previously borrowed. Transaction logs may exist as part of the disaster recovery procedures so that any database actions that occurred subsequent to the most recent backup can be restored. For web-based interfaces, the web server logs may also include entries created when the item was borrowed or returned. In some cases, network infrastructure components may also log transaction. Removing all traces of a circulation transaction may require a series of technical tasks, which in most cases can be automated.

At a minimum, libraries will take measures to ensure that no personally identifiable link is preserved once a patron has returned an item. Libraries usually need to maintain detailed statistics related to items borrowed to produce reports and to analyze borrowing and collection trends. Most ILS circulation modules include functionality to remove personally identifying data from transaction records, which makes the patron data anonymous while preserving category and demographic data to satisfy reporting requirements. This functionality may—or may not—also scrub all related log files to likewise remove personally identifying data. Many libraries also make use of third-party analytics services and utilities that operate on the basis of data exported from the library's ILS or other systems. Libraries need to be aware of whether the data supplied to these analytical tools includes personally identifiable information.

The privacy features of an ILS operate on multiple levels. During the time of an active check-out, the system should enforce authorization features that limit access to the details of a circulation transaction to supervisory personnel and preclude access to others. This level of control prevents a lowerlevel circulation desk worker from viewing the items a patron has charged or to reveal that information if asked by a third party. Some supervisory or administrative personnel will usually be able to access this information. Once an item has been returned, an ILS configured for a high level of privacy would eliminate the possibility of gaining access to that transaction regardless of administrative authorization or technical access to the system. In the event of a legal request from a third party or an unauthorized system intrusion, such data cannot be provided or accessed since it no longer exists.

Such tight control of circulation data may run contrary to the interest some libraries haves in enabling features to provide personalized or social capabilities. Patrons may expect, for example, to be able sign into their account and see lists of all the materials they have previously borrowed. The ability to provide this information to the patron likewise makes it available to authorized disclosures by the library or unauthorized access in the event of a security event. Libraries can create opt-in policies in which patrons consent to the preservation of their borrowing history and inform them of the associated risks. Libraries have to balance the opposing pressures of providing personalized services, embracing many of the concepts of social networks with the contradictory elements of eliminating any data that may compromise the privacy of their patrons.

Confidentiality of Patron Transactions Conducted Online

Library catalogs, discovery interfaces, and websites can expose sensitive information regarding patron interactions with the library's online services. The communications between the patron and the library's technical systems conveys sensitive data, including the query entered, lists of results, record selected, and items of content viewed online or downloaded. The data describing patron online behavior contains data even more sensitive than circulation transactions. Search queries, for example, could be captured or requested as evidence of interest in a topic even when the patron did not find or select specific content items.

Web-based interfaces transmit all the data related to a patron's interactions with a library catalog or discovery services across local networks or the internet. The URL generated by the search interface will include a query string, encoded in name/value pairs, describing the term entered into the search box, qualifiers, and other details. Interfaces configured to use the GET directive will transmit this data directly as part of the URL; those using POST will send the same information via a temporary file. Regardless of the method used, this data can be captured on the network if it is sent without encryption.

Information transmitted via local networks or the internet can be vulnerable to interception by parties other than the intended recipient. Technical tools are readily available to capture traffic on wired or wireless networks by those with physical access or proximity. Enterprise networks on campuses or for corporations may include diagnostic or monitoring tools capable of capturing transmissions. It is also reasonable to assume that internet service providers have the technical ability to intercept or record all the data that traverses their networks.

Mandate to Encrypt

Given the reality of the ease of interception of data transmitted across networks, encryption stands as the key strategy for ensuring the privacy of that data. End-to-end encryption ensures that only the intended senders and receivers are able to decrypt and view data. Fortunately, the means for enabling encryption are readily available, inexpensive, and can be implemented with only a moderate level of technical ability. For web-based services, the implementation of the HTTPS protocol encrypts the data stream between the originating server and the user's browser. The activation of HTTPS requires that the web server operator obtain a digital certificate from a digital certificate authority that authoritatively identifies the service and provides the public and private security keys needed for encryption. Once a valid digital certificate has been installed on the web server, it can then be configured to communicate using the encrypted HTTPS protocol instead of HTTP, which sends data as clear text without protection. The managers of the service may also need to review its content to ensure that any links or included content are coded to use HTTPS instead of HTTP. Pages with a mixture of HTTP and HTTPS content will be considered as insecure by most web browsers.

Libraries need to ensure that the web servers associated with their website, catalogs, discovery interfaces, or content resources preserve the privacy of their patrons as they use the resources the libraries provide. Each of the services in the library's web presence may have a different set of procedures or complications in the activation of HTTPS, often involving tasks by both the library's technical staff and the vendor providing the software or its hosting services. In most cases, the library will need to acquire the digital certificates involved. How those certificates are installed and the technical configuration of the services to use HTTPS will vary.

The online catalog module of an ILS or a discovery interface can be more complex to configure to use HTTPS than a basic website. The developers of these products will need to ensure that all aspects of functionality operate properly and consistently deliver secured web pages when HTTPS is activated. The scenario may also differ for local implementations versus those hosted by the vendor. Some discovery interfaces are deployed using the domain name of the vendor, along with the responsibility of obtaining digital certificates. Some vendors may implement HTTPS by default; for others, it may be an optional configuration that must be requested by the library.

From a privacy perspective, it is also important for HTTPS to be mandatorily enforced. It is possible for a service to be configured to use HTTPS by default, but to also function with HTTP. Any links to the service coded with HTTP or if the user happens to type HTTP would transpire without protection. Sites that automatically redirect requests made with HTTP to HTTPS offer more comprehensive privacy protection.

The internet increasingly has become more aggressive regarding collecting information that intrudes on the privacy of individuals. In the consumer arena, there are implicit or explicit understandings that the provision of free services comes at the cost of personal information, which may then be used commercially, such as for targeted advertising. Advertising networks have deep roots in the infrastructure of the web, gathering details of sites visited, items selected, or any other clues that may point toward consumer interests. At an even deeper level, the possibility of internet service providers recording and selling their customer's web browsing history, even without their permission, has deep implications for privacy. For organizations such as libraries that desire to protect the confidentiality of their patrons who make use of their services, mandatory encryption is essential.

View Citation
Publication Year:2017
Type of Material:Article
Language English
Published in: Smart Libraries Newsletter
Publication Info:Volume 37 Number 05
Issue:May 2017
Publisher:ALA TechSource
Series: Smarter Libraries through Technology
Place of Publication:Chicago, IL
Record Number:22589
Last Update:2022-12-05 15:03:25
Date Created:2017-05-12 10:42:19