Technology and Society

Promises, Promises

May 9, 2019

All of the tech giants are suddenly into privacy. Apple started it, fighting off a federal demand to decrypt a phone and break a promise to their customers that their data, if not stored in the cloud, is secure, even from Apple. (The feebs dropped the demand once they found they could pay an Israeli company a cool million to hack the phone, though it’s just the latest in federal attempts to insist on encryption backdoors). Apple found privacy polished their brand and gave them a leg up over Google, which also sells phones but makes most of its money on a digital ad system that relies on not respecting your privacy. But wait, Google respects your privacy! And confuses it with security, which Google handles pretty well, so long as you don’t mind Google being up in your business. Even Facebook has suddenly found Privacy Jesus. We’ll keep watching everything you do, but we’ll stop saying privacy is over and transparency is next to godliness. At least until the FTC gets off our case and we squelch all that annoying antitrust talk so we can turn all of our properties into one behemoth that will be too big to fail, just like those banks.

You would think libraries, like Apple, could use privacy to burnish their brand. We’ve talked a good game, and sometimes walked the walk. Protecting privacy is a core value and in our code of ethics. But we face a couple of pressures. One is that we aren’t actually able to guarantee patron privacy. We don’t control the levers on most of our digital gadgetry and publishers want to know more information than we should give them. (This can end in tears.) It would help if we also stopped putting social media beacons and Google analytics on our webpages without thinking about how that violates privacy. (Duh.)

But beyond that, we willfully trade student privacy for reassurance that our libraries have value to our host institutions. There are many ways we could ethically study student learning and find out how to make students’ learning experiences better. But the variables are so entangled you really need to design solid qualitative studies and that doesn’t always satisfy administrators who want numbers and dashboards and attractively-colored charts. They want proof, and numbers don’t lie (though if you torture them, they’ll say anything). The Data Doubles project is taking a good look at student privacy and libraries. Good stuff. Read it. Weep. Then do better.

What I wish is that academic libraries and the institutions they serve would stop falling for the “digital snake oil” of learning analytics. But it keeps coming! Apparently – did you know this? – we haven’t changed the way we teach for a thousand years and we don’t know what we’re doing, but computation and moar data will fix it. Carnegie Mellon wants to engineer learning. Of course they do, those geeks! They won’t have trouble spending $100 million on a project like this.

But whenever I hear “engineering” in the context of living, breathing people, I can’t help but think of Stalin. He had different tools in mind: “The production of souls is more important than the production of tanks . . . And therefore I raise my glass to you, writers, the engineers of the human soul.” That engineering brought us Socialist Realism but man, would Uncle Joe ever love what Putin can do today with code. Or rather, what state-sponsored creative writers can do with the platforms running code written by American companies that are now telling us once again and without sincerity that our privacy is important to them.


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Babel Fish Bouillabaisse II Copyright © 2019 by Barbara Fister is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.