By Clare Willis, Chicago-Kent Research Librarian
On November 20, 2014, the Chicago Association of Law Libraries welcomed Prof. Lori Andrews as the speaker for their quarterly business meeting. Prof. Andrews spoke on “Privacy’s Dying Gasp and How Librarians Can Resuscitate It.” She started the talk by sharing her life-long appreciation for libraries, including the law library at Yale. She pointed out that online sources allow her to research things that could not have been found in a bricks and mortar library. But even though there is more information online, she added, it comes at the cost of the tracking and aggregating of private information online. Prof. Andrews gave several examples of how information posted online can be used against the person who shared it: in one instance, the consultancy firm Deloitte encouraged a group of life insurers to look to an applicant’s social network pages, especially for evidence of such personal characteristics as being an avid reader; eating fast food; commuting to work; and having friends who are skydivers, to determine if the applicant is a bad underwriting risk. When asked why an avid reader might be a risk, she speculated that the insurer might believe that avid readers have more sedentary lifestyles.
Prof. Andrews explained that the information collected online goes to advertising and while she believed that most people would not mind a coupon, other advertisements can be more intrusive, especially those that use someone’s name and/or likeness. For example, two work colleagues could both “like” drugstore.com on Facebook and that affinity could produce a Facebook advertisement that tells their mutual Facebook friends that the two “like” a brand of personal lubricant.
Prof. Andrews explained how social media can infringe on the right to a fair trial. In one example, she noted that criminal penalties may be enhanced if there is evidence that a defendant wore gang colors in a picture on social media. She pointed out that the Los Angeles Police Department considers plaid and black, otherwise benign patterns or colors, to be gang colors. She also noted that jurors find it difficult not to Google the facts of a case or tweet about being a juror. She told of a librarian who was charged with contempt of court for conducting her own online research into shaken baby syndrome when she was a juror in such a case.
Prof. Andrews emphasized that technology could lead to unexpected invasions of privacy, including privacy of place. As an example, she told the group about a Pennsylvania high school that gave laptops to students but did not tell them that the school could turn on the laptop camera remotely. A student was accused of taking drugs because the camera caught the student with what looked like pills, even though the “pills” were, in fact, Mike and Ike’s candies.
Prof. Andrews then confronted the common argument that, “Privacy is dead.” She noted that other technologies, including portable cameras and wiretapping, were once declared the death of privacy. She pointed out that the U.S. Supreme Court addressed the privacy concerns of all of those technologies and can continue to do so with new technologies.
Finally, Prof. Andrews encouraged librarians to live up to the American Library Association principle that people need privacy before they can have freedom of expression. She explained that libraries could fight against the invasion of privacy by teaching people that surveillance is not acceptable and by putting software on library computers to make activity on those computers anonymous. She ended her talk by encouraging the group to be “ninja librarians,” and assuring them that she “has their back.”