Privacy in the 21st Century


In his article,“2014: The Year of Counterveillance,” journalist Robert Siciliano points out the pervasiveness of privacy issues over the last year. From Edward Snowden and the NSA to Facebook’s new policy’s (which state that they can keep your data in perpetuity and use your images in their advertisements), numerous events throughout 2013 have highlighted just how little privacy we have in this modern, technological era and how easily it is violated (Siciliano, 2014, para 2). What’s more, these issue are not going away. As evidenced by latest techno-privacy threat, Heartbleed, our privacy issues are only going to increase in gravity as technology progresses.

I was one of those 40 million Target customers affected by their credit card data compromise. I bought a $2 soda in the check-out line with my debit card and it cost me my financial security. Thankfully, my bank was quick to notice, protected my accounts, and provided me with a replacement card. But I was left feeling more than a little shaken and vulnerable. It’s unsettling to think about just how easily our data can be mined. For example, if I visit a website in one internet tab with Facebook open in another, I’ll start seeing ads in my Facebook bar based on that web activity within a 24 hour period.  It’s uncanny. It’s also a little horrifying.

The fact that even our simplest activities being so closely analyzed feels like something straight out of a science fiction. Only the dangers are far too real, as pointed out by Daniel Sovlove (2008) in his article, “The Future of Privacy”:

Government agencies are mining this personal data, trying to determine whether a person is likely to engage in criminal or terrorist activity in the future based on patterns of behavior, purchases, and interests. If a government computer decides that you are a likely threat, then you might find yourself on a watch list, you might have difficulty flying, and there might be further negative consequences in the future (p. 58)

I can’t speak for everyone, but the way data mining is going feels a little too akin to 1984 for my taste. Such analytic measures as the ones mentioned above verge on “thought policing” and are the stuff of sci-fi nightmares.

So what, then, is our responsibility as 21st century information professionals? How can we protect patron privacy our current times?

First and foremost, we need to adhere to ALA policy and staunchly resist any efforts at data mining aimed at our patrons. We are one of the last bastions of privacy left and we need to defend that role. Demanding reasonable cause for information requests from the government (particularly under the PATRIOT Act) is vital.  As Rubin (2010) points out, “patrons will not use materials or make inquiries regarding controversial topics if they believe such actions are not free from public exposure and governmental intrusion” (p.  391).  The last thing our patrons need is an extension of the data mining intrusions they already experience online. As librarians, we must take care to be discrete with our patrons’ circulation information.

On a more practical level, many patrons who engage in online activities are unaware of just how easily they can be taken advantage of. How many times have we heard of seniors being taken in by Nigerian prince scams and the like? Or younger patrons being sexually harassed by online predators? Since part of the library’s mission is educational in nature, librarians could consider offering classes in online safety for all ages to better equip our patrons to protect themselves. We cannot control the data mining efforts of every business and government entity. We can, however, arm our patrons with the information necessary to make intelligent decisions.

 A final thought: when privacy is threatened, so too is freedom of speech – which is the very bedrock of our democratic society. At the risk of sounding alarmist, we must do our best to protect this right in our role as information professionals. Otherwise, we run the risk of loosing the freedom we so dearly cherish.


Rubin, R.E. (2010). Foundations of library science.  New York, NY: Neal-Schumann Publishers, Inc.

Siciliano, R. (2014). 2014: The year of counterveillance. Huffington Post. Retrieved from:

Sovlove, D. (2008). The future of privacy. American Libraries, 39, 56-59.

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