A pandemic. Increased acts of hate. Police brutality. An assault on the capitol. 2020 and 2021 have tested the endurance and resilience of American society. Some of these developments are new, while others have been ongoing for decades. Among these attention-grabbing headlines is an internet-era movement to address privacy.
All internet users have engaged with the new attention to privacy in some way. Most likely, every time a user enters a website for the first time, they will be asked to what extent they want their cookies tracked by the site and for what purposes. This explicit engagement provides the user with the opportunity for more control as to how their information is utilized and shared. Many take the time to minimize their cookies in an effort to reduce advertisements geared toward consumerism. But what about the platforms that don’t make usage of a visitor’s data transparent? This has been a divisive question among libraries for years.
In the library world, privacy is a core tenant included in the ALA Library Bill of Rights. Patrons can use this public service to anonymously navigate the infosphere from a station or check out books confidentially, “free from observation or unwanted surveillance by the government or others.” While libraries stand as a beacon for privacy and confidentiality, third-party databases that libraries often purchase to further scholarly inquiry threaten this very principle.
Two of these that have been in the news recently are Thomson Reuters’ Westlaw and Reed Elsevier’s LexisNexis, or Nexis Uni. Both are databases that focus on public records and legal documents, vital to the work of any law student or lawyer, and utilized by students and patrons across the spectrum from undergraduates writing class papers to anyone keeping up with the latest news and opinions. Under the guise of providing necessary information for scholarly research, both sell personal information, such as license plate numbers, credit history, and other records (including location coordinates) to Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
Effectively, these companies that brand themselves as engaging with public services are in fact aiding in the arrest and deportation of many in exchange for millions of dollars. Moreover, because of the government agencies that they are working with, specific communities of color are typically being targeted. This effectively results in the Libraries that provide access to these databases in abetting the potential deportation or harassment of some of the libraries’ most vulnerable patrons.
By obtaining these personal records from Reuters and Elsevier, government agencies are able to sidestep legal processes and constitutional laws while gathering and analyzing data to facilitate their work. It raises questions of technology companies and their role in supplying the government with surveillance tools that unequivocally violate one’s privacy.
As librarians fight to uphold the privacy and confidentiality of our communities, let us begin by pressuring our vendors to be ethically responsible. SPARC (the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition) has begun to organize collaborative conversations around rethinking libraries’ relationships with these vendors and demanding contracts with tighter terms regarding patrons’ privacy. If you are interested in speaking out against these practices, a movement has taken place using the “#NoTechforICE” hashtag as well.
- Adams, Helen R. Privacy in the 21st Century: Issues for Public, School, and Academic Libraries. Westport, CT: Libraries Unlimited, 2005.
- ”Addressing the Alarming Systems of Surveillance Built by Library Vendors.” SPARC (April 9, 2021).
- Harwell, Drew. “ICE investigators used a private utility database covering millions to pursue immigration violations.” Washington Post (February 26, 2021).
- Lamdan, Sarah. “Librarianship at the Crossroads of ICE Surveillance.” In the Library with the Lead Pipe. 2017. http://www.inthelibrarywiththeleadpipe.org/2019/ice-surveillance/
- Lamdan, Sarah. “When Westlaw Fuels ICE Surveillance: Legal Ethics in the Era of Big Data Policing.” New York University Review of Law & Social Change, vol. 43, no. 2, 2019, p. 255-294. HeinOnline, https://heinonline.org/HOL/P?h=hein.journals/nyuls43&i=267.
- Macrina, Alison and Talya Cooper. Anonymity. Chicago: ALA Neal-Schuman, 2019.
- Mendoza, Anabel. “LexisNexis’ Multi-Million Dollar Contract with ICE Proves That To Keep Immigrants Safe, We Must Defund and Abolish ICE & CBP.” United We Dream (April 5, 2021).
- “Privacy: An Interpretation of the Library Bill of Rights.” American Library Association (July 7, 2006).
- Talla, Vasudha. “ACLU Calls On Tech Companies to End Their Alliance with ICE and CBP.” ACLU (September 9, 2020).