One of the first arguments that comes up in the privacy debate – whether the issue at hand is a police search of your vehicle or Amazon keeping a record of every Kindle book you read – is that only people who have “something to hide” care about privacy.
To say this is disingenuous, and if the people who made this argument thought for even five minutes, I bet they could come up with a few things about their lives that aren’t illegal, or even morally or ethically wrong, but that they’d like to keep private anyway. Let’s consider the issue of library books, and what the books you check out may reveal about you. (Notice The Anarchist Cookbook is not on the following list. I don’t know the statistics about where terrorists get their bomb-making instructions, but I doubt most of it comes from the public library. There’s this thing called the Internet, you see.)
- What to Expect When You’re Expecting, or other books that might indicate you’re trying to start a family before you’ve told anyone else.
- Cracking the New GRE, or other test-prep books for grad school or a planned career change you aren’t ready to tell your current boss about.
- Managing Your Depression, The Lahey Clinic Guide to Cooking Through Cancer, or other books about medical conditions you or someone close to you may be experiencing.
- Bankruptcy for Small Business Owners might prove worrisome to your clients or your bank.
- The Guide to Getting It On, or any books on the topics of sexuality, sexual health, safe sex, etc. (In many libraries, kids can get their own library cards at a young age, and parents aren’t allowed to monitor their accounts.) See also: It Gets Better: Coming Out, Overcoming Bullying, Creating a Life Worth Living, or Transgender Lives, etc.
- God Is Not Great or other anti-religious texts would likely be poorly received if you’re part of a religious family or community.
- A Gentle Path Through the Twelve Steps, or other books about personal struggle and recovery.
- How to Buy a House; How to Sell A House, or other real estate books when you haven’t told anyone you’re thinking of moving.
These are just a few examples of information that people might justifiably want to keep personal and private, but not because of any wrongdoing. And this is why librarians strive to protect patron privacy.
“We protect each library user’s right to privacy and confidentiality with respect to information sought or received and resources consulted, borrowed, acquired or transmitted.” -ALA Code of Ethics
11/1/14 Edited to add: This short graphic novel about privacy and technology from Al Jazeera America expands this idea, looking not just at people’s reading history but about all the information they share, voluntarily or not. Thanks to Library Link of the Day for the link.
“Maybe we’ve been given a false choice between opting in and giving up control over how that information is used–” “–between sharing and being left out.”
11/3/14 Edited to add: Kevin O’Kelly from the Somerville Public Library reminded me of Glenn Greenwald’s excellent TED Talk, “Why Privacy Matters.” In it, Greenwald says, “People who say that…privacy isn’t really important, they don’t actually believe it, and the way you know that they don’t actually believe it is that while they say with their words that privacy doesn’t matter, with their actions, they take all kinds of steps to safeguard their privacy. They put passwords on their email and their social media accounts, they put locks on their bedroom and bathroom doors, all steps designed to prevent other people from entering what they consider their private realm and knowing what it is that they don’t want other people to know.“
And also: “We as human beings, even those of us who in words disclaim the importance of our own privacy, instinctively understand the profound importance of it. It is true that as human beings, we’re social animals, which means we have a need for other people to know what we’re doing and saying and thinking, which is why we voluntarily publish information about ourselves online. But equally essential to what it means to be a free and fulfilled human being is to have a place that we can go and be free of the judgmental eyes of other people.”
Greenwald is the author of No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. surveillance state (2014). His TED talk is well worth 20 minutes of your time.