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Libraries as the Last Private Public Space

TL;DR: With the rise of surveillance technologies, and the ever-growing Internet of Things, there is a distinct possibility that in the near future, the library may be the only private public place left in modern society.

The modern world is largely driven by what has been termed “surveillance capitalism” by Shoshana Zuboff. Surveillance capitalism is, defined roughly, the monetization of data that is gathered through the observation of individual or group behavior. This data can be gathered voluntarily (by asking users for it), involuntarily (one company gathering information about an individual by taking it from another data source), or via some combination of the two (data that was given freely by the individual, but is later leaked or stolen from the recipient). Almost the entirety of the modern web is predicated on surveillance capitalism, with targeted advertising being the driving force behind many of the largest companies in the world. Nearly every social network (Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram, and the like) are in this category, as are the largest web retailers like Amazon. Google is, famously, not really a search company, nor is it driven by a desire to organize the worlds information. It is an advertising company, with 90% of its revenue coming from some form of advertising that is based on the things it knows about you.

Consider, just as an exercise, how much Google can know about you. If you use the Google search engine, it knows everything you’ve searched for, every result, and every link you’ve clicked to get information. If you use the Chrome browser, then Google has the capacity to know nearly everything. In theory, they can know everything you’ve typed into the address bar, everything you’ve typed into a non-secure form, and more. If you use Gmail, Google scans your email (sent and received) to better target you. Use Google Drive or Google Docs/Sheets/Slides, and those are scanned as well.

The last few months have brought to light the cost to society of surveillance capitalism, in the form of Facebook and the potential influencing of the US elections through automated targeted advertising. There is beginning to be a backlash against this type of data collection, and it’s possible that the near-future may see the rise of regulation and policy to prevent this sort of data from being used in advertising. This isn’t out of the realm of possibility, as the US has a history of federally regulating types of advertising allowed, from type (subliminal advertising) to content (cigarette ads, alcohol ads).

This is likely to be necessary as future hardware developments allow for near-zero-cost low power data collection systems to be implemented ubiquitously throughout our world. Consider the development of a camera module that powers itself, because the sensor is also a solar cell that produces the power necessary to run itself. Due to Moore’s Law and Koomey’s Law, we will soon have the capacity to spread cameras and microphones with cellular and wifi radios attached to them across our environment at incredibly low costs. It is very easy to imagine a future where companies like Google give away packages of these “ubiquity sensors” and use them to harvest data about movement and behavior in the same kind of way that they “give away” Google Maps by harvesting movement information from Android phones.

Once we head further down this road, it is highly possible that we are approaching the end of public spaces being anonymous or private spaces where one can be reasonably certain they aren’t being surveilled. Right now, this is already more or less the case in many cities like London, and we have seen omnipresent surveillance spread across entire counties in the case of somewhere like China.

I say all of this because I believe that not only is privacy and security fundamental to the operation of libraries in the United States, but because I can envision this near-future where libraries may be the last public space that doesn’t surveil you for the purposes of increasing the bottom line of a corporation. This is a space and effort that libraries should embrace, advertise, and focus on…privacy and freedom from surveillance is necessary for a functional democracy, in the same way that the ALA’s Democracy Statement says:

“Democracies need libraries. An informed public constitutes the very foundation of a democracy; after all, democracies are about discourse—discourse among the people. If a free society is to survive, it must ensure the preservation of its records and provide free and open access to this information to all its citizens.”

The power and strength of the library to protect and enable democracy and equity goes farther than the preservation and access to information. Libraries have a duty to the privacy of their patrons, but moreover they have a duty to defend the foundations of democracy itself. In this future world of ubiquitous surveillance, the library has a duty to say no….to provide access to spaces that are not collecting information about what patrons are doing. Libraries are spaces where people should be safe, as safety is a prerequisite for information seeking and understanding. Ubiquitous surveillance is fundamentally unsafe for vulnerable populations of patrons, and libraries have a duty to those patrons to resist the collection and retention of data about individuals.

As a result, the next 5-10 years are going to be incredibly dangerous. Libraries can step up at every level to protect the privacy and security of their community. In order to protect and support the fundamental tenets of our democratic society, libraries must double-down on privacy now by protecting their patron’s data and information seeking, but also be ready to protect their communities by resisting the rise of ubiquitous surveillance in the world.

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