Privy to Privacy
posted June 13, 2013 7:29 AM by Sarah Barton
I haven't heard much, if any, nitty-gritty library lingo since classes ended in April. In my GSLIS experience, it seems that most of the jargon-y, theoretical stuff happens in the classroom while the more practical, practice-oriented application occurs in outside jobs, internships, or volunteer activities. Anyway, a big news story caught my attention last week not only because of its national ramifications, but also its parallels to things I have learned at GSLIS - right down to the jargon.
Throughout the day last Thursday I followed an article on the New York Times website called "U.S is Secretly Collecting Records of Verizon Calls." I will spare you the details of the article (its title alone provides a succinct synopsis), but the main thing that stood out to me about this news story was the amount of library lingo being thrown around.
A senior Obama administration official was quoted as saying that the government was only collecting the metadata about, not the content of, the phone calls. It is one thing to... Wait, hold on a second. Did someone just use the word "metadata" outside of a library setting? "Metadata" has to be one of the most jargon-y of all library words, and there it is on the front of the New York Times website. GSLIS offers an entire course about metadata, and I'm pretty sure that any GSLIS student can corroborate the importance, implications, and utility of metadata. How dare you try to belittle metadata, senior administration official!
Boston.com's coverage of this news story mentioned Jim Harper, a communications and privacy expert at the Cato Institute who questioned the practice of subjecting the call metadata to pattern analyses that might help intercept terrorism. Sounds like data mining to me! Data mining is hardly exclusive to libraries, but is something that has been discussed in my technology, reference, and knowledge management classes at GSLIS. Library databases contain people's personal information and check out (as opposed to buying) habits, both of which could be of great value to a number of for-profit companies. Thankfully, libraries are required to keep that information under wraps, except for the potential enactment of a little thing called...
The Patriot Act, which is why the government could legally obtain those phone records. In order to detect and prevent terrorism, federal agents can "ask a court for an order to obtain business records in national security terrorism cases." The issue (for some people, anyway) with "Verizongate" is that there doesn't seem to be much in terms of probable cause for stalking businesses' phone records. The Patriot Act has come up in GSLIS classes because for national security purposes, the US government can demand that a library turn over its records. This may horrify some people who don't want Obama knowing that they read 50 Shades of Grey, but for many it infringes on their fundamental right to present a library card and anonymously check out what they want.
Libraries face privacy questions every day. The questions may be on a smaller scale than this phone records scandal, but the issues are still significant, especially in this digital age. Regarding the importance of privacy in an increasingly digital world, Al Gore tweeted "Is it just me, or is secret blanket surveillance obscenely outrageous?" To justify the validity of the court orders sanctioned by the Patriot Act, South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham said "If we don't do it, we're crazy." I don't know what gives, but I do know this: libraries are a safe haven for many different people for many different reasons, and the Patriot Act shouldn't change that.