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What e-books at the library mean for your privacy
id="article-body" class="row" section="article-body"> Getty Images Back in 1995, printing company Quad/Graphics didn't let its employees in Saratoga, New York, access the internet. But that didn't stop the workers from figuring out a way to get online during business hours.
The employees dialed long distance -- that was a thing back then -- to a free dial-up internet service called Libraries Without Walls that was offered through the Southern Adirondack Library System and used their library cards to log on. Over a span of 18 months, they surfed a total of 1,770 hours and racked up $23,000 in phone bills.
Unsurprisingly, Quad/Graphics wasn't happy. So the company asked the library system to give it the names of the employees who used the service. The library refused and when taken to court, a judge backed it up.
The Next Chapter is a multipart series that examines the changing role of libraries in a connected world.
James Martin/CNET The incident underscores the lengths to which librarians go to protect patron privacy. But the world has gotten more complicated since the days of dial-up. As National Library Week kicks off, librarians face tough questions on how to balance the benefits of electronic resources with the library's commitment to privacy.
"Privacy ensures that there's no chilling effect," said Deborah Caldwell-Stone, deputy director of the Office of Intellectual Freedom at the American Library Association, "so you don't avoid a topic because you fear the judgment of neighbors or your government."
The new technology environment is at odds with the traditional role libraries have played as champions of privacy. Librarians stood up to the US government over requirements in the 2001 USA Patriot Act to share records with law enforcement. They designed policies that require that records of the books you've checked out are deleted as soon as you return them. And they've pushed every US state to adopt protections for patron records.
E-books and audiobooks, now standard at libraries, make protecting privacy harder. Titles are usually provided through private companies, which can access your data. And today's software can create more comprehensive records about you than a simple list of the books you checked out. (You can also get many e-books and audiobooks online free and legally.)
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Library apps let you borrow e-books and audiobooks without leaving home, which makes it easier to access a library's collection. They also create a list of everything you're reading.
Some of the apps, such as Libby by e-book publisher Overdrive, keep a record of your borrowing history that's linked to your library patron ID number, though not your name. Overdrive CEO Steve Potash says the app collects the least amount of personal information possible.
"We have to be held up to extraordinarily high standards," Potash said, in order to get the trust of the nation's libraries.
Nonetheless, you still have to be confident app makers won't use your data for advertising, hand it over to law enforcement or leak it to hackers.
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Cybersecurity experts have found bugs in library apps. Erin Berman, who chairs a privacy subcommittee at the American Libraries Association, said a test of products she oversaw at the San Jose Public Library in 2018 found six apps with serious cybersecurity flaws. In March, cybersecurity expert Justin Paine found the Kanopy video streaming app leaked information about what patrons were watching because of an improperly secured cloud service.
You can also inadvertently leak your own information. Overdrive's apps let you transfer your library e-books to the Kindle app, which tips off Amazon to the library books you read. Some librarians have questioned whether patrons know that's happening and that there could be unintended consequences, Berman says.
For example, a young person might not realize that reading a YA novel with a gay or trans protagonist on their Kindle app could prompt similar titles to appear in accounts they share with their family. That might out him or her before they're ready.
Amazon says that protecting privacy is a "top priority" for the company.
"Books are in our DNA at Amazon and we believe that public library lending has great societal importance including increases in literacy and exposure to stories and new ideas," an Amazon spokesperson said. "Maintaining the trust of our customers by protecting their privacy and ensuring the security of their data is a longstanding top priority for Amazon."
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