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A librarian's take on student privacy

Scott McLeod's important thought-piece The surveillance of our youth asks many of the same questions I've been asking myself as we contemplate giving parents a record of their students' browsing history in our district (a capability enabled by a new filtering system). He asks:

Should we monitor every single book or online resource that our children read? Should we use biometric school lunch checkout systems so that we can see exactly what our children eat for lunch each day? Should we dig through our children’s belongings and rooms every morning after they leave for school to see if they’re doing something that they shouldn’t? Should we install RFID and GPS tags into our children’s clothing and backpacks so that we can track them in real time? Should we slap lifelogging cameras on our kids and review them every evening? Should we install keystroke logging software or monitor everything that youth search for on the Internet? Which of these makes you uncomfortable and which doesn’t?

This right to information access privacy has been on the radar of librarians for a rather long time. The Code of Ethics of the American Library Association (first adopted in 1939) specifically calls out:

III.    We protect each library user’s right to privacy and confidentiality with respect to information sought or received and resources consulted, borrowed, acquired or transmitted. 

In "Ethics in the use of technology" (Chapter Five of Ethics in School Librarianship: a Reader edited by Carol Simpson, 2003), I also asked some questions about privacy in the digital age:

Adding complexity to ethical choices that must be made in interpreting the general statement about a library patron’s right to privacy, minors have traditionally been accorded fewer privacy rights than adults. To what extent do we as SLMSs [School Library Media Specialists] reveal the information-seeking and reading habits of an individual student to other adults who have a custodial (and ethical) responsibility for the well being of that student? Do I let a child’s parent, teacher, or school counselor know if one of my students has been accessing “how-to” suicide materials on the web? Do I give information to an authority on a child’s Internet use if it appears that the authority is just on a “fishing trip” with little probable cause for needing this data?

There are often legitimate pedagogical reasons to share with a child’s teachers information about that child’s library resource use. Is the child selecting reading materials at a level that allows that child to practice his or her reading skills? Is the child using the online resources to complete a classroom assignment?


I would suggest we ask ourselves as SLMSs when making decisions about student privacy issues:

  • What are my school’s policies and state and federal laws regarding the confidentiality of student information? Have I consulted with and can I expect support from my administration regarding decisions I make regarding student privacy? Is there recourse to the school’s legal counsel regarding difficult or contentious issues?
  • What is the legitimate custodial responsibility of the person or group asking for information about a student?
  • How accurately and specifically can I provide that information?
  • By providing such information is there a reasonable chance the information may prevent some harm to either the individual or to others in the school or community?
  • Is there a legitimate pedagogical reason to share student information with a teacher? Am I sharing information about materials that students are using for curricular purposes or for personal use?
  • Have I clearly stated to my students what the library guidelines are on the release of personal information? If the computers in the library are or can be remotely monitored, is there a clear statement of that fact readily posted?
  • If student activity on a computer is logged, are students aware of this record, how long the log is kept, how the log may be used, and by whom?

As SLMSs, we of course need to help students be aware of technology issues related to privacy both so that they can protect their own privacy and honor the privacy of others. Students need to understand that businesses and organizations use information to market products, and that information is often gathered electronically, both overtly and covertly. Students need to know that a stranger is a stranger, whether met on the playground or on the Internet and that personal information shared with a stranger may put themselves and their families at risk. Students need to know that schools have the right to search their files when created and stored on school owned computer hardware. Students need to be taught to respect the privacy of others: that because information is displayed on a computer screen doesn’t make it public; that information inadvertently left accessible does not mean that it is appropriate to access it.

Scott, like you, I would prefer to err of the side of privacy. New capabilities for monitoring student technology use and information access call for new discussions around the topic. Will over-surveillance drive students away from using school-provided technologies? Will this create a have and have-not situation in which students with non-school means of information access will be able to satisfy their curiosities without fear of being discovered; whereas students without non-school access will not be able to gather good information?

Thank you for again raising this topic. It's critical.

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Reader Comments (1)

An old-fashioned blog post exchange! Woo hoo!

Thanks, Doug, for continuing the conversation. Your next-to-last sentence is one of the things I'm most worried about:

"Will this create a have and have-not situation in which students with non-school means of information access will be able to satisfy their curiosities without fear of being discovered; whereas students without non-school access will not be able to gather good information?"

The answer, of course, is YES.

January 22, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterScott McLeod

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