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One of the freedoms we have come to take for granted in the United States is one which is not enshrined in the Constitution.  That freedom, which has been only haltingly and narrowly defined by high courts, is the freedom of privacy.

We have come to expect that privacy is available to us in many ways—what we do in the privacy of our homes, if not patently illegal, is our business and our business alone.  Privacy, in the form of online anonymity, is almost considered a birthright by the current generation.

While not guaranteed by our country's defining document, we all have come to expect that privacy to be available to us in a way we rarely think about: our selection of reading material.

In particular, in public libraries around the nation, most of us are protected not by laws defining our privacy rights, but by the work of librarians adhering to a code of conduct.

In the 1930s, the American Library Association (ALA) recognized the need for librarians to take privacy issues seriously. The seventies, eighties, and nineties saw a rise in ALA's advocacy of patron confidentiality. ALA has continually encouraged librarians to keep a watchful eye on governmental and private institutions that might violate the sacred trust between the library and its users. In its Code of Ethics the ALA recognizes that patrons have a right to privacy (Seaman, 1994; Garoogian, 1991). Despite the ALA's conviction that patron confidentiality must be kept in all circumstances, the ALA is not a lawmaking institution; therefore its codes are not legally binding. The ALA recognizes that ". . . compliance with the Code of Ethics, is voluntary . . . and carries no consequence. Violation does not result in professional sanctions or fines" (Seaman, 1994). In many cases, all that is needed to examine a patron's reading interests is a court-ordered warrant.

While recent legislation—most notably the Patriot Act—have eroded our privacy rights with regard to library records, they still remain mostly intact, thanks in part to actions taken by the ALA.  One can hope that, unless there is a sea change in the ALA's stance on this matter, this will continue to be the case.

There are more places, however, where members of the public are now getting their reading material, and where protections afforded by the watchful eye of the librarian are not a given: online.

An example of such a place is Google Book Search.

Google's goal is building Google Book Search is certainly a noble one.

Google Book Search makes finding books easier. We introduced this program in the fall of 2004 to help users search through the oceans of information contained in the world’s books and to help authors and publishers promote their books and expand their sales. Now when you do a search on Google, your results include not only websites, but also pointers to books whose contents contain your search terms. You can also visit the Google Book Search site at to search specifically for books.

There's a problem, however.  Google has not provided a strong privacy protection for users of this service.

As an article at the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) website says:

Unlike the privacy you normally experience online, Google’s current practices show it is capable of compiling "dossiers" that reveal our lives in intimate detail. These dossiers may be shared across Google products or with partners, civil litigants, and law enforcement without clear standards for review. Other online bookstores raise similar concerns, but Google is the company seeking federal court approval of what may well become the world’s largest digital book repository -- so it must lead the way in protecting online reader privacy and anonymity.

To deal with this lack of a strong pro-privacy statement by Google, the EFF and the ACLU, working with others, has proposed actions Google could take to provide a reasonable level of consumer privacy rights protections.  Among those actions:

  • commit that Google will not disclose information about Google Book Search users to government entities or third parties in a pending civil or administrative action absent a warrant or court order (unless they are barred from doing so by law).
  • guarantee that Google will not provide the titles of books purchased to any credit card company or other third party directly or indirectly involved in the purchase, including the Book Rights Registry.
  • ensure that searching and previewing books does not require user registration or the affirmative disclosure of any personal information.
  • allow registered users to control what other local or remote computer users can see about her or his Google Book Search use through the use of separate password-protected "bookshelves" or other technical means.
  • ensure that any commitment Google makes to protecting reader privacy on Google Book Search is legally enforceable and that all data Google collects about U.S. Google Book Search users is stored such that it is subject to U.S. legal protections.

(The full list can be found at the EFF website article titled Google Book Search Settlement and Reader Privacy.)

As of this time, Google has taken some steps towards granting privacy to its users, but those steps are limited and are contingent on the results of a settlement in the lawsuit against Google by publishers and authors which may modify those privacy rights.

Bottom line: as benevolent as Google has been to date (with a notable exception in the recent kerfuffle over Chinese censorship), they are a corporation which must insure a return to their shareholders, and consumer rights take a back seat to that.  Asking Google to take all steps to protect user privacy is critical—if they do not, the government will have a ready means to take another right from its citizens in a manner impossible before Google's project.

Originally posted to rfall on Mon Jan 18, 2010 at 09:00 PM PST.

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Comment Preferences

  •  For more information on what you can do (20+ / 0-)

    ...visit the EFF website and send a message to Google requesting that they commit to these privacy principles.

    "Certainly the game is rigged. Don't let that stop you; if you don't bet, you can't win." Lazarus Long

    by rfall on Mon Jan 18, 2010 at 08:40:53 PM PST

  •  Important diary. (9+ / 0-)

    It might not get the attention it deserves with everything else that is going on... Haiti, Coakly, Cosmopolitan Brown, Military Scopes with scriptures inscribed, the list goes on and on.

    Please stay on top of it.

    You did a great job putting this together.

  •  Were you born yesterday? (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Wee Mama, Sarea, MichaelNY

    Privacy is an illusion.  But as such, I at present trust Google with the information they collect on me.  They have over the past 10 years shown consistent behavior in safeguarding all our information and it has been shown that they have even stood up to the United States government when said government was on a fishing expedition.

    If you have used Google search you may find that it delivers search results that seem uncannily relevant to your particular interests.  This is the bargain you make with them for utilizing them.  They organize the world's information and they make it relevant to you.  They monetize that effort.  

    When talking about privacy, please consider that in the average city, you will likely be recorded on some video surveillance system several times a day.  Here in the city of Chicago, the police offer private businesses the ability to link their private systems with the cities.  Now think of the chilling possibilities:  The city has access to the drivers' license database with the millions of pictures.  Facial recognition software matches your face on the video camera with the license database and they know who you are, and where you've been at what time.

    Records from libraries, video rental stores are routinely captured and used by law enforcement agencies in a dragnet style fashion.  Only Google has said no to this type of activity.

    Have you boarded a plane lately? The TSA requires your full legal name which is checked against FBI and other databases.  The government then has a record of your travel movements.  

    Credit card companies routinely share your transaction data with data mining companies.

    Are you bothered yet about the reality of the lack of privacy in this society?

    --Mr. President, you have to earn my vote every day. Not take it for granted. --

    by chipoliwog on Mon Jan 18, 2010 at 09:18:48 PM PST

    •  What is your suggested solution? (0+ / 0-)

      would love to know...

      "None are more enslaved than those who falsely believe they are free." - Goethe

      by Sarea on Mon Jan 18, 2010 at 09:22:04 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

    •  I am bothered more that anyone believes this: (7+ / 0-)

      Privacy is an illusion.

      It's a cynical attitude which plays perfectly into the hands of those who would completely remove the privacy we have left.

      I would prefer to be a realist, believing that we have some privacy rights, and we must fight to get back and retain others.

      Cynicism of this sort serves no real purpose.

      "Certainly the game is rigged. Don't let that stop you; if you don't bet, you can't win." Lazarus Long

      by rfall on Mon Jan 18, 2010 at 09:22:36 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  It is the conundrum of our time (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:

        It is certainly a price we pay for our modern connected lifestyle.  Gravity seems to propel us further towards it.

        But perhaps there is something else to consider is that the lamenting of the loss of privacy is based on assumptions about human nature and about government and tyranny.  If we assume that human nature is naturally debased and that government is fundamentally our enemy, then we also lose the essential ingredient for an advanced society.

        In Google, it has so far acted as in a manor consistent with my values (with the exception of their foray into China). Indeed, their ability to perform their mission of organizing the world's information rests on the preservation of their reputation as a consistently reliable company that safeguards your privacy.  If we also seek the kind of government where truth and justice prevails, then we are on the road to the advancement of our civilization.  

        Very soon, the concept of theft will be largely moot because technology will allow the provenance of an item can be reasonably attained. RFID transmitters embedded in most items will carry a unique id code that can be registered with each transaction.  This also means the ability to hide taxable events also erodes.  

        --Mr. President, you have to earn my vote every day. Not take it for granted. --

        by chipoliwog on Mon Jan 18, 2010 at 09:37:56 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

    •  Privacy is only an illusion (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      palantir, rfall, mieprowan

      for those who don't really look into it or care, IMHO.

      I didn't use supermarket discount cards or credit cards for years due to the knowledge of what they would keep about me and possibly cross-reference over time.  Nor would I utilize a RF-enabled electronic pass for local tolls.  I only rented and paid in cash each month.  And so on.

      These things made it tougher to pinpoint quite as much about my habits overall, but didn't make it impossible by a long shot.  The purpose was to discourage theft-oriented investigations rather than government or retail-oriented ones.

      Since a house, marriage and kids with a spouse who is rather mainstream, I've lost the caring for certain segments of my private life relative to data mining or investigative operations.  But, my kids will continue to gain an education in how to minimize their footprints as they get older, even though their medical, school and related records will have already begun the tracking process since early in their lives.  It'll be their decisions if they decide to drop more off the grid or just not care too much.

      Because it's not about privacy but more about how potentially private data will be used.  And, that's what Google is being challenged on, IMHO.

      "So, please stay where you are. Don't move and don't panic. Don't take off your shoes! Jobs is on the way."

      by wader on Mon Jan 18, 2010 at 09:45:14 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  Privacy would be nice (8+ / 0-)

    but since I came online in the mid 90's, I've always assumed that every keystroke is being recorded and/or noted by someone, somewhere. They can make any promise that they want to and I'll still take it with a grain of salt.

    Admittedly, I am slightly paranoid about security, in general, but I don't trust any company to keep my info private.

    I'll gladly send Google message though.

    "The human eye is a wonderful device. With a little effort, it can fail to see even the most glaring injustice." Richard K. Morgan

    by sceptical observer on Mon Jan 18, 2010 at 09:23:51 PM PST

    •  I agree with the need to remain skeptical of (5+ / 0-)

      ...the privacy I appear to have, and as a techie can take some actions to protect it in ways others may not be capable of doing.

      Thanks for agreeing to send that message.

      "Certainly the game is rigged. Don't let that stop you; if you don't bet, you can't win." Lazarus Long

      by rfall on Mon Jan 18, 2010 at 09:25:37 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

    •  I grew up in a household (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      blueoasis, sceptical observer

      with a stepfather who was a public defender who dealt with some controversial cases. He always told us; assume they know everything. And this was in the 70's.

      The proliferation of blogging and socializing sites may, in a way, be a kind of productive reaction to all that. That's a lot of data to try to sift through, and they can't do it all with selective searching.

      Similarly, if you want to hide valuables on your property, you look for whatever you've got that there is a lot of, that would be a lot of work to go through, that is heavy lifting.

      None of this presumes an assumption of guilt - just a presumption that one has the right to keep things secret.

      "Loyalty to petrified opinions never yet broke a chain or freed a human soul in this world -- and never will." - Mark Twain.

      by mieprowan on Tue Jan 19, 2010 at 03:34:57 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  The people are watching Google watching them (5+ / 0-)

    at least the people who don't trust Google. I don't trust them and keep posted on the privacy risks of using Google products. Me paranoid a little maybe. What was that???

    Some posts will attract a strong response from those unfamiliar with robust dialogue

    by Eposter on Mon Jan 18, 2010 at 09:31:20 PM PST

  •  good essay (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    should have gotten more attention.

    "Loyalty to petrified opinions never yet broke a chain or freed a human soul in this world -- and never will." - Mark Twain.

    by mieprowan on Tue Jan 19, 2010 at 03:29:08 AM PST

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