Does Privacy Even Matter Anymore?
By Andrea Puglisi & Callan Bignoli

The Absence of Privacy in Information Systems

Information disorder, polarization, social unrest, and declining interpersonal trust continue to spread within our communities and across our social spaces. Education and the role of libraries in our communities is being aggressively challenged; many of these challenges target marginalized groups who are at high risk of harm and discrimination. There is a collective uncertainty about how to find information and a disagreement over what might be called “truth” about the world we all share. The most pressing issues that our communities face – access to information, environmental destruction, social justice, safety, and ensuring an informed citizenry that is capable of fully engaging in our democratic institutions – all rest on the right to privacy.

As library professionals, our commitment to the principles of intellectual freedom and privacy is understood as being foundational to our existence. Library professionals have a strong history of advocating for open access to a world of ideas. We understand that in order for intellectual freedom to be achieved, privacy must be protected. It is understood as a profession that when privacy or confidentiality is compromised, true freedom of inquiry no longer exists. In the words of Shoshana Zuboff, “If you have nothing to hide, you are nothing.” The digital age has ushered in an era of new challenges, resulting in a rapid development of electronic systems to exchange information at rates that outpace human understanding, or our understanding of what the impacts will be on society. Underpinning this new reality is the ever-expanding rise of big-tech and data mining businesses relying on surveillance capitalism as their business models, and this shows no sign of abating.

The ramifications of monetizing information systems exacerbate the flaws in our human and social systems, and we have all collectively experienced the effects of expanding digital surveillance across all aspects of our lives. During the COVID-19 pandemic, citizens have had to make many trade-offs between protecting their personal information and contributing to public health efforts. The COVID-19 pandemic underscores the important role libraries can play in helping patrons navigate the data-driven, constantly surveilled reality of life in 2022. As technology continues to embed itself into all aspects of life, there is a great need for expertise and leadership on these topics and for more education about how technology impacts patron privacy. Library workers whose work is rooted in centering privacy and confidentiality play an important role in helping to protect and empower their communities in a world shaped by recommendation algorithms and advertiser tracking.

Digital Privacy in Libraries

These growing challenges to privacy are oftentimes viewed as so overwhelming that library organizations and patrons alike oftentimes express uncertainty of where to start, how to protect against the harmful normalization of digital surveillance systems, or question if privacy can even exist or is a value worth protecting anymore. As librarians, information stewards that work for the public good and advocate for the needs of our communities, we must respond: Privacy is not dead. It is absolutely our responsibility to support our communities by integrating tools and systems that prioritize privacy, while advocating for systemic change to stop mass collection and monetization of personal data. Libraries uniquely possess the authority, opportunity, and responsibility to empower patrons with education on how to protect their privacy, alongside our role as trusted community educators who specialize in information and digital media literacy.

In the spring of 2021, recognizing the pressing need and the widespread interest within the Massachusetts library community on how to protect privacy in the digital age, Massachusetts Library Association’s Library Information Technology Section (LITS) brainstormed ways to create resources to help librarians across the Commonwealth to navigate emerging technologies and privacy concerns. Two members of LITS, Andrea Puglisi and Callan Bignoli, are also privacy advocates through Library Freedom Project (LFP), a nonprofit organization dedicated to empowering library workers to help advocate for and protect the privacy of their patrons. Leveraging the connection we had between LITS and LFP, as well as our familiarity with Massachusetts Library System and their numerous professional guides, we engaged members from LITS and LFP on a collaborative project to create a privacy and technology educational resource that would be freely available for our colleagues. We are grateful to the Massachusetts Library System for its support and willingness to include this resource among their robust professional development collection.

MLA/LFP Digital Privacy & Technology Project

This collaborative Digital Privacy and Technology resource guide is designed to offer a starting point for library workers interested in educating patrons on digital privacy in addition to providing library workers with tools and frameworks to consider as they improve their organizational commitment to protecting privacy. Conversations around redlining, policing, net neutrality, and broadband access are growing in our spaces and beyond; libraries must engage these conversations, and work to build their communities’ understanding of how these discriminatory social injustices are woven into the for-profit digital systems that permeate our lives. Whether you are seeking recommendations on software that limits ad tracking or alternatives to products made by Google and other “big tech” entities; how to generate strong passwords that your library’s IT Department would approve of; or resources to protect students/staff/partners from online harassment, this guide can help.

Beginning in the spring, project contributors from Massachusetts Library Association’s LITS and Library Freedom Project will be supporting MLS Community Chat conversations on resources and themes raised within this guide, publishing blogs through Massachusetts Library System and will be offering a Q&A panel style presentation at Massachusetts Library Association’s Annual Conference. MLA/LFP Digital Privacy & Technology project contributors reflect a range of library professionals in various settings and at all points in our career. Together we blended our expertise working in public, academic, library networking settings to engage these topics and to create a resource to support the wide set of needs and strengthen our professional community overall.

It is our hope that these resources and conversations aim to provide a starting point for library workers to gain a grounding in these topics and to serve as a starting point for the work ahead. We believe that to rise to these urgent challenges, the library community must come together and commit to moving forward by connecting their patrons with guidance on how to protect their digital privacy, and work together as a profession to advocate for systemic change to protect digital privacy rights. The loss of privacy impacts us all, and we must all join together to turn the tide.

Author bios

Andrea Puglisi is the Systems/Electronic Resources librarian at Middlesex Community College in Lowell, Massachusetts. Serving a range of community types, her work has centered on connecting communities with the tools needed in order to understand and navigate the digital information landscape in the modern age.

Callan Bignoli is the director of the library at Olin College of Engineering in Needham, Massachusetts. She gathers inspiration from everywhere to inform user-centered practices and push the profession forward. Callan studies and speaks about user experience design, library management, and social issues in technology, challenging students and colleagues to fight for a more just and human future.