Evil (Information) Scientist

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They know what you read last summer

Posted by Nathaniel on September 16, 2007

Image Hosted by ImageShack.usIf I were truly an evil information scientist I would be rubbing my hands together and chortling maliciously at this article on developments in surveillance technology. While not completely pertinent to a course on how libraries use technology to share information, it certainly gives one pause to consider how technology may be used to gather, store, and disseminate information.

Described in this innocent looking single column piece from the BBC is a terrifying look at our future. One scientist is developing software to recognise individuals in a crowd simply by the way they walk, their charcteristic “gait DNA”. Another has technology that can read individual heart and breathing rates through walls. In 10 years, the scientist claims, technology will have been developed to read individual thought patterns. Couple this with work on pilotless surveillance drones that can remain in the air for 5 years, and we all become Winston and Julia from 1984.

What responsibility do information scientists have to ensure ethical use of technology, since the developers seem to take none? There is obviously an enormous difference between storing data from an online library directory and flying spy drones peering through walls to record your dreams, the United States Patriot Act already gives government agencies access to information on individual library users, including the books they’ve check out, catalogue searches they’ve made, and emails they’ve sent and received at library terminals. The American Library Association (ALA) condemns these sections of the act, but it’s an empty condemnation when one is faced with subpoenas, the confiscation of library hardware by law enforcement agencies, and possible incarceration. We’ve come a long way since card catalogues.

The ethics of data collection, storage, and distribution are of interest to me. I would like to work in privacy and security policy in health records, where some of our most private and vulnerable information is kept. The advancement of technology that can be used to gain access to anyone’s private information – be it literary interests, psychiatric notes, or the way they walk – terrifies me, both professionally and personally. What can we do in our jobs to reign it in? Anything?



7 Responses to “They know what you read last summer”

  1. Krishna said

    Beyond the passage of various resolutions on the matter, has the ALA initiated any actual public campaign to repeal these regressive sections of the P.A., Nathaniel? Do you know? Hmpf! “These sections.” That’s pretty damn generous of me. The whole bloody thing is a bunch of bollocks predicated on the worst of Orwellian prognostications, notwithstanding the rampant run of Islamophobia the damn Bushies (and Clintons) continue to inculcate. Grrrrrrrrr!!!!!

  2. nstone said

    From a quick google search it seems as if the ALA kept it’s flurries of outrage to library journals and their website. Not a very good way of expressing public outrage, eh – confining it to the colleagues. We, like sheep…

  3. esum said

    If anything, I think our responsibility increases with any erosion of ethics in development. But I’m inclined to agree that without substantial legal power or highly visible resistance on the part of the public, the influence from the librarian sphere is limited. Perhaps the info scientist’s role should be one of education, and esp for those working in the public sphere, to connect individuals to lobbying groups. To be honest, I don’t see that there’s much public outrage to begin with (maybe I’m not looking hard enough).

  4. esum said

    oops, here’s a comment w/my blog url – wp doesn’t give you a textbox for it when you’re logged in.

  5. Nathaniel said

    So where is that educational role in the jobs of American librarians against the Patriot Act. I see buttons on the ALA site, but hear nothing else. The fact that I’m in Canada shouldn’t matter since we get American media up here. Where is that role of educator that we should be playing?

  6. esum said

    Perhaps facilitator would be a more feasible role than educator. It doesn’t make sense for librarians to duplicate the functions of other organizations that specifically do advocacy work regarding info policy. Perhaps the ALA’s role could be something like connecting the public to such organizations or collaborating w/them on projects?

    Also, I forgot to mention – there is (or was?) a secrecy clause in the Patriot Act that makes it illegal for librarians to notify users that the FBI has requested user info. It’s called a gag order b/c librarians can’t talk to each other about such actions either. So librarians themselves are being legally restricted in what they can do – another reason to connect users to a non-librarian organization, like the ACLU (https://secure.aclu.org/site/SPageServer?pagename=LetJohnDoeSpeakPetition&JServSessionIdr007=ilw4ubqwd4.app24a)

    On a side note, I wonder what the Canadian library community’s reaction to the Anti-Terrorism Act was before it lapsed?

  7. esum said

    TechCrunch blogs about the REAL ID Act

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