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Privacy

*Update October 21,2005: James R. Jacobs, Shinjoung Yeo, and Danial Cornwall were invited to speak at the Nevada Library Association Annual Conference. Here’s James’ panel presentation about privacy and government information.


What you read about your government (or about anything) should be your business. But how well is your privacy protected? There is a great difference in privacy between the analog world of government publications and the Internet. In the analog world you decide the amount of privacy you have; in the digital world the servers of the information decide how much privacy they’ll let you have.

Let’s look at three examples: walking into a federal depository library; viewing information on a library’s web site; and downloading a document from Federal Agency X’s web site.

The Physical Depository Library – You can usually walk right into a Federal Depository Library. There are a few that may ask for identification, but even these libraries do not track your browsing. Once you walk in, you can browse all you like without being tracked. You can take books off the shelves and look through them and if you put them back on the shelves, no one will know what titles you looked through. If you decide to check some reports out of the depository, you’ll be protected by the confidentiality statutes of the state where the library is. Since October 2001, it’s been possible for your reading records to be turned over to federal authorities, but most libraries erase the record of any books you’ve checked out once you turn them in.

Viewing information on a library web site – Most libraries have websites these days. Many have explicit privacy policies that limit the information that the library collects. Some of the information they could collect include:

  • The address (IP) of your computer or Internet provider.
  • The date and time you accessed their site.
  • The Internet address of the web site that referred you to their site.
  • Tracking information via cookies. Most libraries won’t put cookies on your computer.

States differ, but most of the time you can expect that your use of the library’s web site to be protected by the same laws that safeguard your reading record. Also, if you follow a link off a library’s web site, you are no longer covered by their privacy policy.

Downloading Files from the website of Federal Agency X – When you go to http://www.fedagencyx.gov; the agency is able to collect the same kinds of information that the library can. According to M-03-22, OMB Guidance for Implementing the Privacy Provisions of the E-Government Act of 2002, federal sites may use cookies if there is a compelling need. According to the same memo, federal agencies must have a policy. We at Free Government Information are unaware of federal statutes protecting federal web browsing.

Does this mean we cannot have Internet access to government information without Uncle Sam looking over our shoulder? No. One solution would be to deposit electronic copies of government information with libraries and let the libraries serve the information on their own servers. That way, electronic government documents would be accessed from privacy minded librarians. Even if the government used its new powers under the PATRIOT act, it would have to make literally thousands of requests to find out who has handled a given document. This is unlike the current system, where the gov’t can ask its own webmasters for as much data as they like without anyone knowing.



For further exploration try…

Web resources

Articles

  • Huff, James. Patron Confidentiality, Millennium Style. American Libraries, Jun/Jul99, Vol. 30 Issue 6, p86, 2p,
  • Martin, Shannon; Chamberlin, Bill F.; Dmitrieva, Irina. State Laws Requiring World Wide Web Dissemination of Information: A Review of State Government Mandates for Documents Online. Information & Communications Technology Law, Jun2001, Vol. 10 Issue 2, p167, 12p,
  • Murphy, Bernadette. Privacy and government information issues: Looking forward, looking back. College & Research Libraries News, Feb2005, Vol. 66 Issue 2, p132, 1p;

Books

  • General Accounting Office. (2000). Internet privacy: comparison of federal agency practices with FTC’s fair information principles . Washington DC: General Accounting Office.
  • Hernon, Peter. (2002). United States government information : policies and sources. Westport, CT: Libraries Unlimited.
  • Podesta, John and Shane, Peter M. (2004). A little knowledge : privacy, security, and public information after September 11th. New York: Century Foundation Press.

Please post suggestions for this bibliography in the comments section.

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