C A S E - S T U D Y - # 12

Are the library computers watching you?

In this prosperous hi-tech university town, everyone owns a computer, or three, so online library services are a given. An "Information Key" (library card is so 20th century) allows users to place holds, create author-related social networking profiles, download feature films and search dozens of password-protected databases. The latest public branch looks like a 22nd century museum with interactive exhibits and multimedia interfaces at the multiple-purpose service desks.

The board of the public library wanted to leverage marketing efforts by collecting demographic data. It did not seem a big deal to direct the IT department to install software to run polls and collect information about visitors to the library's websites.

Then, for a school project, a group of teenagers discovered what the library was collecting, as well as the sophistication of the "cookies" being implanted on people's computers and the vulnerability of the library's computers to hacking. Social security numbers, birthdates and mothers' maiden names, three ubiquitous tools for identity theft, were being requested as user names and passwords. Server security was patchy, at best. The software was not being upgraded to deal with potential harmful software creeping into the network of library users PCs. It was easy to find out what anyone was checking out. And a teen-aged intern was discovered creating a secret account to stash porn on the library administration's machine.

"Facebook, Amazon, Yahoo, Google: They all collect information for the good of the people using their services," argued the library board president, who worked for a well-known online music service.

"And they are not libraries with an ethical imperative to protect individual privacy," said the head of the citizen's group, formed to respond to the findings.
Reality Check:

Have you witnessed this or similar situations at your library?
Yes No

Were you involved in making a decision or taking an action about vendor selection?
Yes No

Would you do anything differently today?
Yes No

Which ethical principles were addressed?

Privacy Yes No
Fairness Yes No
Access Yes No
Transparency Yes No

Which First Amendment issues are involved?

Freedom of religion Yes No
Freedom of speech Yes No
Freedom of the press Yes No
Freedom of assembly Yes No
Redress of grievances Yes No

University of North Texas - Lifelong Education @ Desktop (c) 2008