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Smarter Libraries through Technology: Privacy and Security in Times of Crisis

Smart Libraries Newsletter [July 2020]

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I have written frequently on topics related to the responsibility of libraries to safeguard the privacy of their patrons, both in their physical lending operations and their digital services. It is a core value of the profession. In this time of a global health crisis, I see it as important for libraries to continue upholding privacy protection.

One of the important elements of controlling the spread of the coronavirus involves contact tracing. If a person becomes ill with, or tests positive for, COVID-19, to limit further spread, it is important to determine the other persons who may have been exposed. As noted in a recent American Libraries article,1 the skills of librarians are well suited to this task, especially since they bring a concern for protecting privacy to the process. I would further emphasize the need for a strong firewall between any patron data in library systems and involvement by library personnel in contact tracing. The use of names and addresses in patron records for other purposes, even for a good cause such as public health, would probably be inconsistent with most library privacy policies. The use of ILS contact details to make calls to check up on elderly or vulnerable patrons may likewise exceed the terms of privacy policies.

As libraries and other organization begin to reopen their physical facilities, they often do so with restrictions specified by local or state agencies or by their own guidelines for ensuring social distancing. There may be, for example, restrictions on occupancy to specific numbers of individuals or to a percentage of normal occupancy patterns. There may be ways to use technology to manage the flow of visitors to library facilities. The obvious concern here is that technology used to monitor and control building occupancy does not capture personal data or at least treats that data with the same degree of security and protection applied to circulation records. Data regarding the physical presence of an individual in the library may be even more sensitive than records regarding patron use of library collection materials. Many organizations are implementing procedures to monitor the health of their employees, such as daily temperature checks. To the extent that libraries perform these kinds of procedures, care should be taken in where any of this information is recorded. The management of health-related data comes with an different set of regulatory frameworks than most library systems are designed to accommodate.

Though not necessarily related to library technologies, concerns about the use of facial recognition have heightened in recent weeks. Top technology companies, such as IBM and Microsoft, recently made announcements that they will cease, or at least pause, the development or investment in facial recognition technology due to concerns for privacy. As facial recognition technology becomes ever more accurate, widely deployed, and tied to large scale repositories of personal data, the implications for broad surveillance or other intrusions into personal privacy raise serious societal concerns.

Concerns specific to the library context have also arisen. With the advancements of facial recognition, we must assume that any video that includes people should be considered a source of personally identifiable data. Video from security cameras, for example, in conjunction with facial recognition systems represent records of when specific individuals were physically present in the library. Again, libraries should treat this video according to their policies for patron privacy protection.

While libraries adopt their own institutional privacy policies, a set of basic technical principles are needed to support them. These include authenticated access to any personally identifiable information (PII), restricting it to the roles of personnel requiring its operational use, encryption of any PII storied on library systems, and end-to-end encryption of all personal data as it traverses local networks or the internet. Personal information would also include data associating individuals with physical or electronic library resources borrowed, consulted, or viewed. Other technical measures related to privacy include anonymization of transactions related to the use of materials and automated routines to execute data retention policies. Libraries and their system vendors must also be sure to keep up-to-date with encryption technologies. Standards continually change based on discoveries of new vulnerabilities.

The protection of patron privacy requires constant vigilance. New advancements in technologies may come with inherent implications related to privacy and security, some of which may not be immediately apparent. Any time that a library expands its involvement into new areas or implements technology for new patterns of service, there should be careful attention to any possible collection and retention of personally identifiable information. Products developed for the consumer or business sectors tend to be quite aggressive in the capture and use of such data. Maintaining a technical environment able to fully support the values of the library profession as well as the policies of individual libraries requires continual effort. Technical standards constantly change, and the consumer and business sectors have shown an ever increasing appetite for personal data.


  1. Timothy Inklebarger, “Librarians Recruited as COVID-19 Hunters.” American Libraries. https://americanlibraries
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Publication Year:2020
Type of Material:Article
Language English
Published in: Smart Libraries Newsletter
Publication Info:Volume 40 Number 07
Issue:July 2020
Publisher:ALA TechSource
Series: Smarter Libraries through Technology
Place of Publication:Chicago, IL
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Record Number:25333
Last Update:2023-12-08 16:12:58
Date Created:2020-07-13 05:58:47