Information Privacy and Organizations

A recent forum on information ethics for the Minnesota Special Libraries Association prompted me to think about privacy.

Assume that individual privacy is undergoing a massive shift because of the advent of large aggregate databases, technical innovations like the web, and, perhaps, a changing attitude among younger generations. The discussion at the meeting centered on social web applications like Facebook, Google, and LibraryThing. A lot of people are sacrificing privacy for the perceived value of a service like GMail, LinkedIn, or Facebook. Librarians have long defended the privacy of patrons by destroying circulation records as soon as possible but in the new social web world patrons are sharing the information librarians protected by posting it on LibraryThing or elsewhere. In order to compete on services libraries may have to reconsider the bedrock ethical principles surrounding the analysis and storage of patron information.

But the even bigger question I wonder about is how organizations will respond in this brave new privacy world. So far most of the erosion of privacy has taken place on the part of individuals. But the organizations and institutions that we all interact with continue to profit from that data and zealously guardt data from being used openly by others.

From a commons perspective this might be another form of enclosure. Individuals choose to contribute to the public commons and then that information is enclosed and “monetized” by companies. Leading to ideas like digital sharecropping and crowdsourcing.

A countervailing trend for public companies are the securities regulations promulgated by the SEC. Here the explicit bargain is in exchange for access to capital markets the company must disclose a certain amount of information to the public. After the Enron scandals the Sarbanes-Oxley bill increased the requirements for public disclosure. But there was, and continues to be, a lot of opposition to that.

It seems we may be headed into a world where privacy becomes more and more a matter of financial resources. Companies can afford to pay the lawyers and technicians needed to keep information locked up behind closed doors. Individuals don’t have that luxury.

When it comes to professional responsibility SLA and other organizations are in a bind. A lot of professional ethics statements protect the privacy of the organizations where people work. Should this continue to be the case? If a significant part of the public gives up its privacy to organizations then why can’t we expect the same openness in return?