The Reader Has No Clothes

Librarians should let patrons know just how exposed they are - and fix the problem.

October 9, 2014

Chances are, you've heard the troubling news that the new version of Adobe Digital Editions is a privacy train wreck. Nate Hoffelder broke the news at The Digital Reader. The two key issues (apart from the fact that this software transmits an awful lot of data to the mothership about what exactly you are reading, including which pages you read and at what IP address) is that it hunts for all of the ebook files on your reading device and sends information about them to Adobe. And all of that data is sent in plain text, meaning that anyone who intercepts the information can read it without any trouble, which is not just a privacy violation, it's a disturbingly amateurish way to do things on the internet. So it's both embarrassing AND a huge privacy breach.A twofer.

Librarians who have ebook collections need to inform their patrons right now that if they are using the latest Adobe Digital Editions software, their reading history, including ebooks they didn't borrow from the library, belongs to Adobe and anyone else who's watching. (See how librarians at Ryerson responded within 24 hours.) Next, they have to figure out what steps to take to fix the problem.Beyond that, we all need to have a serious conversation of whether our devotion to privacy is merely lip service, an old-fashioned hang-up we have decided doesn't matter anymore and should scrub from the American Library Association website, or whether we will actually, you know, stand up for it. Because right now, that's not happening.

I couldn't explain the problem better than Andromeda Yelton has, so I won't try. I'll just share a few of my thoughts. 

  • I'm really happy right now that my little library hasn't invested in ebook collections. I was feeling a little smug back when those who had heavily invested were hit with a gigantic price increase. But cost and price volatility wasn't our only issue. We are concerned that we'd be taking our already small book budget to rent books that we can't keep, can only choose as a package (with some exceptions), and usually can't loan to other libraries. We need to be good partners in interlibrary sharing because we're too small to have everything our students and faculty need. Acquiring books we can't loan is flipping the bird to libraries we count on. Violating patron privacy (and probably state law) just makes that decision seem even smarter. The affordances of ebook deals simply don't compensate for the rights we surrender. 
  • I am more convinced than ever that DRM is not the way to go with academic ebooks. Springer has proven that scholarly publishers don't need it to have a sustainable business model. DRM means lousy service and turning our backs on privacy. Any librarian who has wrestled with the products knows about the service issues, but for a succinct recap read what Wayne Bivens-Tatum has to say. I'll let the Electronic Frontier Foundation explain what's wrong with DRM on privacy grounds.
  • For those librarians who say "patrons don't care" or "we have to do what our users want," show me the evidence that they really, truly, have no problem with all kinds of people knowing what pages they've read from all of the books they have borrowed and that they don't mind if Adobe rummages through their reading devices to see what other books they've read. I have a feeling they'd say, "Seriously? They do that? That's not okay." Just because they have Facebook accounts doesn't mean they don't care about privacy. Don't give me that digital natives palaver. There is no such thing. Besides, young people, contrary to old-people rumors, care a lot about privacy. Ask the experts. I am skeptical that users have actually demanded en masse that we use our book budget to subscribe to bundles of ebooks that you have to go through 18 steps to download. Even if they did demand them, have we explained what rights we give up when we choose ebooks? We aren't doing our jobs and blaming our users for that failure is wrong.
  • For those librarians who say "oh fine, nice thought, but we have no power," think about the billions of dollars we spend. That's leverage. We haven't used it. We've capitulated far too often. And it's not even our money. We're expected to be good stewards. Instead we're taking out payday loans.
  • For those librarians who say "future! relevance! progress!" I say "propaganda! marketing! nonsense!" The future is a totalitarian surveillance state - unless we decide it isn't. The future is an uninhabitable planet - unless we stop ignoring the violence we are inflicting on it. The future is not something that just happens to us. It's not a fashion we need to adopt fast or be snubbed, as if we're still in middle school. The future isn't more consumption without consequences. The future won't have the values we care about unless we give a damn. Unless we care about libraries and the people who use them. Unless we stop making our decisions based on what's convenient right now while assuming that somehow shows we're all about the future.

Remember that old story about how everyone was fooled by some scammers when they dressed the leader in cloth of unusual delicacy until a child said "but he has no clothes on!" There's a new version of that fable. The emperors are all shrouded in layers of secrecy wrapped up in laws. Today, it's the people who have no clothes and are being scammed into thinking they're well dressed. The emperors are enjoying the view and librarians are spending a king's ransom on the latest fashions.

Time to point out the obvious: our readers have no privacy, and we're part of the problem. What are we going to do about it?   

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