Weakening of Online Privacy at Libraries

Chronicles of Dissent points to some discouraging trends at public libraries that potentially threaten patron anonymity and privacy.

First, it appears more and more libraries are requiring those wishing to use their Internet services to produce a valid library card. This is troubling since, at most every library I’ve been to, individuals can enter and wander the shelves, sit and read a book, take notes, make copies, etc without ever having to provide identification, let alone register for a library card. There is no way to track what books someone looks at, what magazines they page through, or even to track who has been in the library at all. By requiring an ID to do many of these same activities via the Internet, these libraries threaten the ability to read, inquire, and learn anonymously.

Second, many libraries are turning to technological solutions to help “manage” their Internet access services. One example of such a solution is CASSIE, “a powerful, easy-to-use integrated solution that automates the management of your public access computers and printers.” While increasing efficiencies within libraries is a laudable goal (especially since budgets are shrinking), these systems often come with privacy-threatening externalities. For example, users typically need to login to gain access, potentially linking a patron with any caches or logs on the computer. Even more threatening is the ability for library staff to view the contents of a patron’s screen remotely, a serious dampening of a patron’s ability to access knowledge free from oversight and answerability.

UPDATE: Prompted by comments below, I’ve dug up some relevant policy links from the ALA regarding online privacy at libraries:

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