Saturday, 13 October 2012

Information privacy

What you read says a lot about you
I got to thinking about privacy again when sneering at the self service machine in our local library. The other week when looking for the books I had reserved I noticed a couple of copies of Shades of Gray the S&M fiction book that everyone keeps going on about or taking the piss out of. The names of the members of the public were on the bits of paper sticking out of the books for obvious reasons because you have to now get the book yourself and take it to the self service machine, in the brave new world of Big Society community libraries there won't always be a member of staff around and the reserved books aren't behind the counter in Oxfordshire libraries anymore like they used to be. I personally wouldn't be fussed if someone knew I was reading that sort of stuff but others might be. It also raises other questions though, what if I wanted to borrow a book on depression or issues with sexual health? What would happen if I were employed locally and my boss also uses the same library and saw I was getting out books about dealing with alcohol problems? This means that everyone who uses the library is privy to my reading habits and knows that I might have issues. For all the hand wringing, time and effort councils and public bodies put into making sure they don't discriminate against certain groups or break the data protection act I'm amazed that libraries are allowing our reading habits to be open for all to see.  These issues are likely to stop people seeking help and information from the library service because the privacy has gone. Not only will the members of the public looking for their own books see what everyone else is reading but the "volunteers" who will be sorting out the books will know and undoubtedly some will gossip. Currently I would trust a library manager or assistant to be discrete and if I reserved a book that was on a topic that was probably something that should be kept private then she/he would put the book out of sight and let me know quietly that it has arrived.

When you consider the data protection act prevents the release of personally identifiable information if it has the postcode as its theoretically possible to identify someone from this and tie it to what ever information is there(average 7 people per postcode I think) then how is it possible that everyone using a library is allowed to see what everyone else is reading? You could just take off the name from the books waiting to be collected of course but how would people know the book is definitely for them? There were two copies of shades of gray the other day, some people may order the same book at different times and collect a book thinking its for them when theirs won't be available for weeks, probably would be common when new books come out. Even putting on the membership number of the person is probably slightly dodgy in the data protection act as it is a unique identifier which I believe isn't allowed. There may be a fix for this but the current system of sticking little name tags onto the books which in future will be done by volunteers isn't satisfactory. Sadly public bodies choose to adhere to the letter of the law only when it suits them, other times they always have ways of wriggling out. When people need information and help for private issues they either have to accept people are going to know what they are reading about or sadly they will have to start looking elsewhere.

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