Privacy is dying or already dead. People (myself included) freely tell the world about our activities through Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, etc. But we have given up our privacy in even more subtle ways than social media. I currently have 3 loyalty cards on my key chain, my grocer, pharmacy, and pet store. That doesn’t include the several loyalty cards I have in my wallet, hardware store, shoe store, sports store, and sandwich chain. Additionally I have 2-3 apps that are loyalty cards like Shopkick and Cartwheel. All of these cards and apps give me discounts (some very substantial). In exchange these stores know exactly what I buy, how often, whether I use coupons, and probably a bunch of other things.
I know there are a lot privacy advocates in the library world. Along with finding information and connecting people to resources, privacy is important to our profession, especially in the medical world. Of my friend and colleagues make statements that they would never give out information to people or companies yet the post on social media and they shop at Costco. We as society have been gradually giving up our privacy in return for convenience or money (discounts and cost savings).
This type of behavior is not going to change any time soon, in fact the next generation is even more willing to give up their privacy. What is interesting (disturbing?) is that they don’t even think of it as privacy. A few months ago I saw the Frontline report, “Generation Like.” The report primarily looked teenagers and the complicated relationship between themselves and the big-name brands they like and actively promote on social media. Not only are the brands are constantly working to target them but the teenagers are actively trying to target their own peer group in the form of likes and comments to gain popularity and fame. The teens told FRONTLINE that social media makes them feel empowered. The most successful or most popular social media teens are rewarded with all sorts of free products to the point a few have been able to make a living off of their social media posts just from the brands they mention.
I am by no means new to social media, and this was a huge eye opener to me. While I realized the brands mined the data and rewarded those who mentioned them on social media, I had no idea how extensive and deep the rewards went. But the biggest eye opening moment wasn’t specifically a moment but the repeated sight of these teenagers who so completely bought into it all and didn’t think twice. In fact after the Frontlined aired the show, most of the teenagers reportedly were excited about getting even more popularity online because of their presence on the show. None of the teenagers blinked twice about the fact that they were giving so much of their privacy away. One interviewer asked the kids about whether they felt like “sell outs” by promoting everything, and the kids didn’t even understand the question. One even mentioned they didn’t know what a sell out was.
As disturbing and fascinating as this Frontline report was, it made me realize that the concept of privacy is either dead or it will be by the time the teenagers of today are in the workforce tomorrow. So why is this important? Aren’t we librarians the champions of privacy? Yes but should we?
I am not talking about disclosing financial data, medical information, or blabbing to the next patron about another’s circulation record. I am talking about our own information systems working with data to provide a more customized and convenient experience. Our ILS immediately clears the record of a book from a patron’s record once it has been returned. That protects our patrons privacy. But how many of our patrons want a record of what they borrowed for their own purposes? I have been asked many times in my library career if I could “just look up the last book they checked out because they forgot the title” or a variant of that question. Personally I love how Amazon knows what I was buying, looking at, and can link my purchases to what others have bought.
My question for librarians is whether our own information system’s restrictions on privacy will ultimately hurt us as the next generation comes to expect more connectivity and convenience. Like the current teenagers now, will they be fine with giving up a certain amount of privacy so that their experience is better? If so what kind of systems do we design (or should we) that can balance the privacy line of information that people are willing to give up (or no longer consider private) vs what we still consider private.
Don’t get me wrong, I am not advocating libraries drop their privacy stance, but I am wondering as society’s views on privacy change, how are we going to change. Obviously education is key. People don’t always know what they information they are giving up and how it is being used. However, there things are changing where people don’t care about certain once private things. So how are we to respond in the future and will that response help us or hurt us?
I’m just thinking out loud, what are your thoughts? (BTW if you leave a comment think about how you are relinquishing some of your privacy and how you are ok doing that now and whether there was a time when you weren’t….you don’t have to put that in your comment, just something to ponder.) As I tell my kids anything you put online is there forever. Sometimes that is good, sometimes not.