The increasing need for ‘evidence’: surveillance and patron privacy

by Tegan Darnell, Research Librarian
University of Southern Queensland, Australia

Although I understand the need for demonstrating value and for evidence-based decision making in libraries in the current socio-political environment, recently I have experienced increasing concern over the ways that academic libraries are collecting data about the movements and behaviour of members of their communities. This is particularly of concern with the increasing use of technology using mobile devices that track members of the library community by location and library resource use.

Analytics packages monitor customer behaviour via smartphones with Wi-Fi capability. One application in particular, which I am going to call “Liquid”, collects unique media access code (MAC) addresses from each phone and then scrambles the code to anonymise the data before storing it on servers. Liquid’s business model concerns my greatly, as it provides the data about your own spaces to businesses (or libraries) for free, and then offers a premium paid service to access the aggregated data of other businesses (or libraries).

On a side note: The Mobile Location Analytics code of conduct was established after this technology had already been trialled for months. Customers were made aware of the technology, resulting in outrage about being monitored. This code of conduct applies only to retail spaces in the United States of America.

Once customer data is collected, it is made available to others for payment. While identifying data is not collected, the age and gender of individuals can be established through the aggregation of the billions of points of data that Liquid already collects. Not only that, but permission from customers is not required or sought. As long as customer name and address are not collected, data that may be identifiable is perfectly legal.

While Liquid itself has a primarily retail customer base, Australian academic libraries are considering (or trialling) this type of technology. While the benefits of having this data about library users are clear to me, it seems that the privacy of users is being minimised or dismissed. The benefits of this sort of data is considered more beneficial to library patrons than the potential risks of their exploitation.

I am sure you are all aware that privacy and confidentiality is fundamental to the ethics and practice of librarianship. The question I have is not whether or not a library should use this sort of tech to track the movement of users. My question is this:

Are data-driven information services and spaces an expectation from users, or are they driven by concerns about funding and library relevancy?

This article gives the views of the author and not necessarily the views the Centre for Evidence Based Library and Information Practice or the University Library, University of Saskatchewan.