Privacy

As an increasing number of our day-to-day activities involve the use of technology, it is important to consider the implications of our digital footprints and be proactive about protecting our data privacy.

This lesson defines privacy and outlines privacy-related legal frameworks. It also highlights how many librarians champion privacy.

Privacy in Context

Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of Law defines privacy as "freedom from unauthorized intrusion" and the "state of being alone and able to keep certain matters to oneself."

Many people dismiss concerns about privacy and technology by saying they 'have nothing to hide' because they have done nothing wrong. This attitude might be problematic.  

Expanding our views on privacy.

Privacy is more than the ability to hide one's wrongdoings. It can be defined in many ways including:

  • New media expert Vaidhyanathan's definition of privacy as the ability to control one's reputation OR
  •  the right to obscurity. In the European Union, this right was recently written into law as the Right to be Forgotten. This law enables people to ask companies like Google to remove Web cache files and search results that link to personal information.

The loss of privacy that can result from the collection, tracking, and sharing of basic information about our everyday activities can have very real life consequences. While most people are familiar with the financial credit checks involved in applying for a loan, few people realize that a plethora of consumer reporting agencies exist to compile reports based on your:

  • bank account usage
  • lease violations, evictions, property and appliance rental applications and payments
  • insurance claims
  • phone and utility payments
  • employment history
  • medical records and prescription drug use
  • child support obligations
  • retail habits 
  • casino gambling.

These agencies report your activities to:

  • banks, financial lenders, and collection agencies
  • employers
  • landlords
  • retail and marketing companies
  • insurance companies
  • utility companies.

This consumer reporting system can make it difficult to pursue opportunities to recover from negative events in one's personal history.

Watch a brief video on the consumer categories that credit companies create based on our financial habits to develop targeted marketing campaigns.

 

The concept of privacy also implies the ability to send and receive communications without intervention from outside parties. Most social media users take it for granted that they are seeing authentic, unfiltered content posted by friends or other users. Users are often unaware that researchers have manipulated social media news feeds to test the capability of "massive-scale emotional contagion" - the effect of other people's emotional states on our own mood - using social networking technologies. Communicating over technology can create the potential for  manipulation since nothing is private.

Privacy is fundamental to a democratic society

Privacy creates the social conditions for the freedom of speech, the freedom to organize and assemble, and the freedom to express dissenting views (all protected by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution).

PEN American Center, a literary and human rights organization, found that one in six writers surveyed had self-censored and avoided expressing something when they thought it could result in surveillance. This phenomenon is called a chilling effect, since it leads to the voluntary suppression of expression due to fear of reprisal.

In addition, leaked documents show that government intelligence agencies use big data capabilities to discredit targets and manipulate public debate online, which can further compromise the freedom of expression and debate that might result from challenging these capabilities.

Privacy Rights

Privacy rights in the United States are secured through a legal framework of constitutional law, common law, and statutory law.

US Constitution

Although the word 'privacy' does not appear in the Constitution, the Supreme Court has continually upheld a right to privacy from state intrusion based on the protections of the following amendments:

First - freedom of religion, freedom of speech (including press), right to assemble

Third - limits government use of private property

Fourth - security from warrantless, unreasonable searches and seizures

Fifth - right against self-incrimination and to due process, and

Fourteenth - establishes due process and equal protection standards.

Under constitutional law, privacy is understood as the right of people to make decisions regarding their personal well-being free from government intrusion or interference, including intimate choices such as religious practice, political affiliation, and family matters.

FERPA - Students and Privacy

The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) establishes privacy standards for students' educational records. FERPA restricts access to students' personally identifiable information and education records maintained by the institution or by a party acting on behalf of the institution. Examples of education records include:

  • Final grades
  • Transcripts
  • Course schedules
  • Disciplinary records
  • Psychological evaluations.

At the college level, students have the right to review and request corrections to education records maintained by their college or university.

However, There are two major loopholes in FERPA:

  1. disclosure of " directory information"
  2. disclosure to school officials.

Colleges are not required to obtain student consent to disclose "directory information," including:

  • Student's name, address, telephone number, and email address
  • Date of birth
  • Most recent education agency or institution attended
  • Dates of attendance
  • Major; degree sought or completed
  • Full or part time enrollment status
  • Expected date of completion
  • Participation in activities, clubs, or sports
  • Height and weight of athletes
  • Honors and awards.

Students can opt-out of directory information disclosure in writing. Colleges are required to notify eligible students of their FERPA rights each year. View Delaware County Community College's FERPA statement found in the Student Handbook.

Colleges and universities are also permitted to disclose student education records, without obtaining consent, to "school officials" or other agents with a "legitimate educational interest." These agents may include:

  • Professors and instructors
  • Administrators
  • Health staff and counselors
  • Attorneys
  • Clerical staff
  • Trustees
  • Committee and board members
  • Contractor, volunteer or other parties to whom the school may have outsourced institutional services or functions.

FERPA also does not protect homework, classroom assignments, or any content generated as students complete coursework online. Private companies, such as educational technology and textbook companies, are free to collect and use information about students' coursework, academic progress, location, computer configuration, and Web browsing habits without FERPA restrictions.

A bill introduced in the United States Senate seeks to restrict private companies' use of education records. The Protecting Student Privacy Act of 2015 would amend FERPA to require data security controls for agencies that maintain students' personally identifiable information, maintain records of agencies that have access to student data, ensure the destruction of personally identifiable information once it is no longer needed, and provide a process by which students could challenge, correct, or delete inaccurate records maintained by outside parties.

Librarians and Privacy

The American Library Association has a professional code of ethics for librarians that expresses commitment to freedom of expression, freedom of inquiry, and freedom of access to information. Protecting patron privacy and the confidentiality of patrons' research is a core value and is fundamental to freedom of inquiry. Many librarians have taken action and have spent time in jail, lobbied for privacy rights, administered pro-privacy technology, and educated the public about cybersecurity, surveillance, and privacy.