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What a librarian can teach you about privacy

By Mark Hall
April 14, 2008 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - Librarians will go a long way to defend the privacy of their patrons' reading habits. How far will you go to defend the privacy of your customers' information and your employees' personal data?

In 2003, the chief librarian of the city of Santa Cruz, Calif., was able to warn her patrons about whether the FBI had served a National Security Letter (NSL) demanding information about who was reading what books. She managed that task despite specific provisions in the USA Patriot Act at the time that prohibited librarians or booksellers from revealing to anyone that they'd been issued an NSL.

So, how did the librarian get the word out? By regularly reporting to the library board that no NSL had been issued to any of the city's 10 branches, which was perfectly legal. Everyone knew that if the chief librarian failed to report that nothing had happened, then indeed an NSL had been served.

In 2005, Windsor, Conn.-based Library Connection Inc., which serves 27 Connecticut libraries, received an NSL and, instead of following its gag-order provisions, went to the American Civil Liberties Union and took the government to court. After a bit of legal threats and maneuvering, the next year, the government decided to stop defending the gag order.

"Protecting user privacy is an ethical obligation of librarians," says Deborah Caldwell-Stone, deputy director in the office of intellectual freedom for the American Library Association (ALA) in Chicago.

Cindy Hill, past president of the Special Libraries Association in Alexandria, Va., and now vice president of information management services at Outsell Inc., a market research firm in Burlingame, Calif., says virtually every librarian will comply with a court order or subpoena, where a specific suspect has been identified by law enforcement agencies.

Leonard Kniffle, editor in chief of ALA Magazine, agrees, saying, "No librarian is not going to comply with a legal process."

But librarians also know where to draw the line. Both Hill and Kniffle say librarians will balk at what they consider "fishing expeditions," where the government simply wants to know who has been reading this or that book.

Let's face it: When it comes to keeping data secure, there's plenty that IT can learn from librarians. Just as ALA members ensure that their patrons' reading habits remain strictly private by establishing privacy audits, so, too, can CIOs audit their systems to ensure that customer and employee data is protected, says Caldwell-Stone. Privacy audits keep customer and employee content under wraps and can protect companies from embarrassing revelations.

One recent example of this was when news broke in February that employees of WE Energies in Milwaukee were accessing customer databases for personal use, such as checking up on their boyfriends.

But Hill says it goes beyond mere PR gaffes. CIOs for global companies need to take into account the privacy laws in different countries when designing IT systems. For example, what's legal for managers to glean about their employees differs from nation to nation, thus making HR applications, and the information they contain, cross-border regulatory land mines.

Hill cites an example from her past as a corporate librarian at Failure Analysis, a company that tested how and why technology failed. For one particular experiment, Hill says engineers needed to know specific physical traits about testers, such as their weight and foot size. Yet without explicit voluntary approval from the worker involved, just gathering, let alone storing, the information could violate worker privacy in more than one country.

Librarians have been trained to consider privacy ramifications surrounding access to content. They guard those rights vigorously and are a great example for CIOs designing secure systems. Just ask them. Quietly, of course.

Next: Whodunit? Stop workers from leaking your data

Mark Hall is a Computerworld editor at large. Contact him at mark_hall@ computerworld.com.

Read more about Security in Computerworld's Security Topic Center.



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