The Privacy Paradox: Building digital understanding through libraries

September 29, 2017

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Ciara Eastell, OBE, Chief Executive, Libraries Unlimited, former President of Society of Chief Librarians


This is part of a blog series examining the theme of online data privacy and public libraries. More information about the wider project can be found here.


What struck me during our study trip to New York was how little I really understood about the importance of protecting my own privacy online. Like many people of my generation, I’m a curious mix of being able to remember the days of handwriting university essays (yes that long ago!) along with someone who uses social media prolifically for keeping in touch with friends and family as well as for nurturing professional connections and networks. Professionally I’m a passionate advocate of the importance of digital inclusion; the powerful democratic role libraries can play in ensuring free access to life changing information and am hugely committed to ensuring children and young people can grow their STEM skills in and out of school.

Despite all this, the study trip showed me how little thought I’d given to my own rights and responsibilities as a digital user and how, as a consequence, I had little knowledge of how companies and the government use my data. I hadn’t given any thought as to how Fitbit may be using the extensive data it collects about me as I pound the streets in a bid to get fit. Whilst fulfilling a weakness for online shoe shopping, I hadn’t really given much thought as to why Facebook constantly tempts me with images of the shoes I’m undecided about. And whilst, like most parents of young children, I’ve talked with my daughters about making sure they are safe online, I hadn’t really considered the need to talk with them about protecting the data they may give away now or in the future. As both a consumer and a citizen, I’ve found myself ill-informed and passive in the face of a massive explosion of online data collection in recent years.

Since I’ve returned from New York, have I reviewed my Facebook settings; researched the data policy of Fitbit or chosen to use search engines like DuckDuckGo to avoid my consumer behaviour being tracked? Frustratingly no – though writing this blog has re-galvanised me to look again at what I’m giving away as I conduct my online life. Researchers have called my behaviour the ‘privacy paradox’ – the paradox that even though I’m aware (and concerned) about my online privacy, I’ve yet to translate that concern into changing my online behaviour.

So how to galvanise what appear to be fairly high levels of concern amongst the general public into action which both educates the citizen whilst also putting pressure on governments and companies to be much more transparent about how they are using our data? That’s clearly a big job and one where the market is likely to be resistant to change. Whilst in New York, we learned a little more about Carnegie’s work in consumer advice in areas such as affordable credit and began to consider the potential of building a stronger consumer advice landscape focused around online privacy.

People like Martha Lane Fox (a digital leader I greatly admire) and her organisation Doteveryone are already pushing forward an agenda to develop a more open, safe and ethical Internet, working with a range of organisations. Her call to action is urgent – as she highlighted in a recent House of Lords debate, as a nation, we need to ‘wake up’ from our collective ‘sleepwalk’ to build greater digital understanding across society. She said that whilst many people have gained sufficient digital skills to enable them to search online, far fewer have developed sufficient ‘digital understanding’ to understand the implications of – for example – cyber attacks, phishing or online safety.

Now Carnegie’s report Digitally Savvy Citizens backs this up with research across the UK highlighting the need to build greater awareness of online privacy. The research shows that this is particularly true for older people and for those who are less well off.

So what role for public libraries in all this? As a sector which has so successfully helped millions of people to take their first steps online, public libraries must surely be a natural contributor to the development of digital understanding and to contribute to the development of more effective consumer support? As our trip to New York showed, our US colleagues are already developing a profile with national initiatives such as Choose Privacy Week, supplemented by an increasing number of locally developed programmes.

There’s no reason why UK colleagues can’t begin to do this too and join with Doteveryone as they develop their mission and momentum. There are some encouraging signs that the sector here is beginning to recognise the importance of this work. Aude Charillon’s work in Newcastle, for example, hosting Cryptoparties and developing both ideas and initiatives that bring issues around privacy, data and ethics more to the fore of the delivery of frontline library services is exemplary and inspiring. In Devon, our work with the local node of the Open Data Institute (as part of our Unlimited Value (see research project) is beginning to help us at Libraries Unlimited gain greater insight into how we can make better use of the data we collect. And CILIP’s Ethics Review points to encouraging signs that the library workforce sees these issues as integral to the future of the profession.

As Trisha Ward highlighted in her recent Carnegie blog, it is now time for library leaders to grasp the nettle and take bold steps to assert and develop public libraries’ contribution to this important debate. I look forward to working with my colleagues to do this and encourage the sector to join with us.


Photo courtesy of the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs.