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Adobe Digital Editions may or may not be sending users' personal information back to Adobe's servers in plain text. It may also be, in certain contexts, scanning users' hard drives for other ebooks not held within the Adobe Digital Editions environment and conveying that information to Adobe. Other ebook vendors are possibly transmitting information--such as your birthday and home address--in plain text to their servers as part of your ebook-lending transaction. These possible security exposures have come to light and are, as of this writing, still being hotly debated and disputed. So this month, I'm speaking about the general issue of privacy and digital content.

Privacy as Policy

Libraries have privacy policies, and privacy is considered one of the profession's core values. All 50 U.S. states have privacy laws that protect patron data. This includes lists of what they've been reading. It's right there in the Code of Ethics of the American Library Association (ALA): "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."

See that "transmitted" bit? That's the tricky part. It's relatively uncomplicated for us to ensure that the list of print books you've checked out stays confidential. That information is held by us, often on servers that we own. Our library vendors have agreements with us that are informed and mindful of the legislative environment surrounding library privacy. However, historically, we've mostly looked toward law enforcement or government agents as the people we were protecting our patrons' information from. This is no longer true.

When a Book Is Not a Book

This was simpler when we were dealing with print materials, but the ebook environment is different. In many cases, books are licensed--not owned--by the library. There are additional rules that go along with ebook lending; there are also certain rights removed in an ebook-lending situation.

The ebook marketplace was created as a primarily consumer-facing system in which the expectation of privacy is considerably lower. Lending via Kindle often requires library patrons to log in to an additional system to complete their ebook loan. When this occurs, whose privacy policies are primary? What happens to the agreements that we have with our patrons?

Most savvy online shoppers are aware that companies collect information about them above and beyond what is necessary to sell them a widget. The questions then become, "Is the ebook-lending environment more like the library environment or more like the marketplace? And how do we as librarians set expectations for patrons appropriately?"

At the very least, any ebook transaction involving DRM requires some level of contact or authorization with a licensing server for verification ("Is this person authorized?" "Is this content available?" "Is this lending period still valid?"). Optimally, this authorization contains the minimum amount of information necessary to complete this transaction. If you're taking the user's privacy seriously, any sensitive information that is transmitted should be encrypted or obscured. Is this happening? Can we even tell?

Knowing What You Don't Know

We've known that having an aggressive pro-privacy stance is sometimes at odds with the way people like to do business. In the library world, we've heard that our defense of patron privacy is overkill, outmoded, or otherwise quaint and archaic. And yet, surveys of peoples' internet habits consistently show that they like to have control over what happens to their information, even if they decide to share some of it.

In the days after the initial Adobe Digital Editions allegations, there was a lot of inspection of the content of various transmitted transactions by librarians and others. There was also a dawning awareness that, for many of us, there is more going on behind the scenes than we might have imagined. In many cases, we don't exactly have the tools or the skills to figure this all out on our own.

Librarian and technologist Andromeda Yelton explains it this way:

   [B]est practice in software is generally
   to log promiscuously; you're
   trained, as a developer, to keep all
   the information, just in case it comes
   in handy. It takes a conscious choice
   (or a slipshod incompetence) not to
   do so. Libraries must demand that
   our vendors make that choice, or else
   we are in the awkward position of
   trusting to their incompetence. This
   affects all the software we run.

In some ways, not only is privacy anti-business, it's also antithetical to the way a lot of people create code. This will continue until there is a reason--a genuine option--for people to do things a different way. As the customer in this scenario--and let's not forget that libraries have huge market share in the aggregate--we could be in a position to change things up a little. Jason Griffey, in a blog post on the issue, says, "We need to insist that our vendors care enough about our ethics that the technical answers become a market differentiator."

People look at technological disruption as just making a new thing that turns a paradigm on its head. However, couldn't it also be finding a way to insert our values into a process that has previously disregarded them?

Strategic Steps

There are two sets of steps for libraries to manage this issue going forward--a patron-facing one and an inward-facing one. Inwardly, we need to get more on top of what's going on with our systems. This has always been true to a certain extent, but now we can't claim not to know or understand that there is more going on than what first appears.

If we don't have the skills to do our own internal security audits, we need to send our staff members for training or put this on the list of Things We Pay Other People to Do. This should be an evaluation of local items, such as how staff members store patron data, passwords, and other sensitive information. Additionally, it should include evaluations of the components of the software we use and whether it's in line with our institutional policies and values. This is not simple, but it is necessary.

As far as patrons go, we should inform them to the best of our abilities about the technological landscape that we provide at the library. Don't assume you know what they want, even if you watch them work. As Danah Boyd said, in her 2010 South by Southwest Music Conference and Festival (SXSW) talk that touched on privacy, "Observing people's data traces gives no indication of whether or not they are trying to be public or private." So when we inform patrons, we should also be educating them. Galen Charlton, a library technologist who works for Equinox, suggests these steps (which I made insertions to) for dealing with the current issue, but it can be expanded to other library software:

* Publicize the problem to patrons.

* Officially warn their patrons against using Digital Editions 4.0 [or other privacy-invasive software] and point to work arounds like pointing "" to "" in hosts files.

* If they must use Digital Editions [or other privacy-invasive software] to borrow ebooks, to recommend the use of earlier versions, which do not appear to be spying on users.

More specifically, we should look at basic technological privacy tools for the most-used software in our libraries: internet browsers. Caches, cookies, and saved passwords are all easily removed user data that is well within our power to eradicate, using technological means such as browser add-ons or even preference settings. Doing anything about patron privacy is better than doing nothing. This recent news just gives us the impetus to start today.


"Adobe is Spying on Users, Collecting Data on Their eBook Libraries"

The American Library Association's Code of Ethics

The American Library Association Interpreting of the Library Bill of Rights

The American Library Association's Choose Privacy Week

The American Library Association's Confidentiality Policy

The American Library Association's List of State Privacy Laws

Plain Text Offenders

Andromeda Yelton's Blog Post

Anonymity, Privacy, and Security Online

Jason Griffey's Blog Post

Galen Charlton's Blog Post

Jessamyn West works at Open Library and cares about privacy. Her blog is
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Title Annotation:Practical Technology: Tools Everyday Librarians Can Apply; using ebooks
Author:West, Jessamyn
Publication:Computers in Libraries
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 1, 2014
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