Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

GBS: Total Patron Awareness

By Chris Hoofnagle

"It is the librarian’s obligation to treat as confidential any private information obtained through contact with library patrons." -Article 11, 1939 Code of Ethics for Librarians, American Library Association.

The town crier couldn't monitor what you heard and paid attention to. Things are different with GBS. In my scholarship, I've pointed out that private entities have surpassed nation states in their ability to collect information about individuals, so much so that in the US, the government has simply outsourced their information collection efforts on citizens.

Google has an extraordinary amount of information about all of us. And unlike standard marketing information, Google's data has been framed by John Battelle as a "database of intentions." We ask Google questions constantly, questions that we're embarrassed to ask people. We naively think that these colloquies are "private," perhaps because we're often sitting alone when we ask those questions.

GBS raises new privacy issues that existing library privacy laws have never contemplated. These include:

  • Data retention: Google will keep information for much longer than libraries typically do. Some libraries delete records of patron activity as soon as a book is returned.
  • Serialization of books: books are going to be linked to a particular user. Libraries unlink a book to a patron shortly after it is returned.
  • Internal marketing uses: existing library privacy laws contemplate the problem of selling patron data to third parties for marketing, but not the issue of first-party marketing use of book consumption.
  • Granular monitoring of use: researchers' use of materials can be monitored on a second-by-second basis.
  • These new problems are raised, while Google is unwilling to even adopt the confidentiality responsibilities that currently apply to librarians. Instead, even pretty sophisticated people have been satisfied with Google's sophisticated privacy rhetoric.

    What does this mean for researchers?

    It means that anonymous inquiry will require a trip to the library.

    It means that there is one more external entity that could possibly be familiar with your inquiry.

    Hope that your research does not get subpoenaed!

    GBS has the potential to unlock access to an incredible amount of knowledge. Libraries have already done so and continue to expand their book digitization efforts, albeit on a different scale. But libraries, in the physical and digital worlds, somehow found it possible to guarantee patron confidentiality. Why can we not have the same guarantees in GBS?