What can libraries do to help raise awareness of workplace surveillance and the tools available to fight back?
I’ll attempt to answer this one – in the past, when there was filming in the classroom (for marketing purposes) going on, we would make sure that students were aware and that we received their consent. In the day-to-day aspect, with surveillance in special collections/archive area, it gets tricky because it is about security, particularly in access/public services. In places where I worked, I know there were cameras around but I didn’t know where they would be located. But in terms of workplace surveillance such as email, I’ve attended trainings where we were all cautioned that our emails belong to X institution and that we need to be careful in our responses. Libraries can engage with users in letting them know about these issues, particularly when using the company’s phone/cell phone, all belong to X institution. I’m not sure what tools would be available to fight back and I am very curious what folks have to say about that and the other question!
I’m curious to know if any of the other state or regional associations have a section or committee for surveillance and privacy issues, and if this could be a way to help raise awareness of workplace surveillance issues? It seems like we would need to start by training library staff on the issues and pass them on to their communities, whether in the form of handouts or with some kind of empowerment training. I do think that keeping libraries “surveillance free” provides a safe place for workers to gather and consider action without fear of retribution (this of course only works if they can gather in a closed meeting room, which may not exist in every library). Educating the public on private channels of communication that they can use to communicate with their coworkers might be another way to go.
In terms of how surveillance showing up in our own work, the first thing I think of is doing temperature checks on staff as they report in to work. This would force some employees to divulge medical information that is not otherwise anyone’s business. I’ve heard a few discussions around asking staff to report their off-work activities to employers (or use GPS tracking) so that they know whether they’ve been social distancing or not. My life might be boring, but I still don’t want my Board knowing every move I make when I’m off the clock!
I’m also in for writing in as policy. The policy handbook serves as a document designed to be a foundational resource for both board members and staff that outlines a value system for anything from behaviour to collection development. There is already a section on privacy and the library why not create some language around surveillance technology to go with it. If the handbook were a dusty document that was rarely looked at I would think differently. In my library its an active piece that changes hands, gets revised, and generally discussed as the library creates strategic plans or looks to solve domestic issues with foundational language - in this respect then it becomes part of the value system of the library.
Hey Jenn - I am working on this with the MLA LIT (Library Info/Tech Section). While we’re not dedicated 100% solely to it, I defined our mission as a spinoff to the Intellectual Freedom/Social Responsibility Committee, which didn’t want to add yet another letter to the acronym but had a lot of philosophical overlap. Part of my recruitment blurb was:
My hope is that in partnership with the MLA Intellectual Freedom and Social Responsibility Committee (IF/SRC), LIT might also contribute to legislative and advocacy efforts geared at ensuring an equitable and democratic future in the face of surveillance technologies, disinformation, and algorithmic prejudice. I have so far worked with MLA’s Executive Board to pressure LinkedIn/Lynda to rethink their library login policies and to support facial recognition ban legislation in Massachusetts. Now, I need your help.
*** How have we seen surveillance and automation show up in our own work (if we feel comfortable saying) or the work of people in our lives?**
I just brought this up in our informal check in… but my Board of Trustees has just asked me to look into self-checkout technology for our library as we think about safely reopening the library when the stay-at-home order is lifted in my state. They’re thinking about the health and safety of the staff and my community, but I have reservations about it because it is likely to automate the jobs of most of the part time Library Assistants on staff. And if we see the significant reduction in revenue from taxes that we are expecting, 2021 might require tough budget decisions. I’d implement it as a temporary way to reduce person to person contact and avoid the spread of the virus, but I worry that once we offer this convenience, people may not like it if we take it away. Worth noting also, is that the tech (offered by Bibliotheca) allows users to use their smartphones to scan barcodes and check out materials–no kiosk-behemoth required. Our sales rep was not very good at answering questions about privacy and how the app interacts with our ILS, so I’m very curious to see how they address my concerns when we reconvene next week.
*** What can libraries do to help raise awareness of workplace surveillance and the tools available to fight back?**
I think that it is so so essential for librarians to have a grip on what machine learning is, and how it’s being used to squeeze workers and consumers. Like just having an awareness of things like union/labor organizing heatmaps, and the information that tech giants are using to put them together is absolutely paramount. That way, we are able to raise awareness and increase literacy for folks in our communities who either a) might benefit from organizing, and/or b) are organizing themselves. Public Librarians can and should be leading information literacy workshops for their patrons to help them to navigate these issues without getting burned. Simple information like: “hey, maybe don’t use Facebook groups to organize, here’s an alternative” can go a long, long way. I’m always thinking about ways that we can program information literacy in the public library… it doesn’t have to be an exclusively academic thing! Outside of working to protect organizers, having an awareness of how things like machine learning and data modeling etc etc work also helps job seekers/workers who are now faced with a workplace with automated HR. We can have job searching/resume workshops that help our users to understand how to be seen better, how to connect with the right employers for them.
It would be good for staff to get a training on where the cameras are and who has the feed. Even if the cameras are there to stay, that kind of awareness is really important. A training like that should also include information about what to do when law enforcement wants to access the footage, what protocals are in place for deleting the footage, and so forth.
Ugh, just thinking about the jobs lost and also how much of our lives that used to require human interaction is now us interacting with machines. And people like to joke about how this is better! But I don’t think they’re thinking about what is lost.
Yes! Even in a reference interview. Or just a regular conversation. These things can be woven organically into all kinds of interactions we have with our communities. That’s one way we get people to think about us as THE place for privacy.
Absolutely! Have you ever seen a job help program at a library that talks about this? I don’t think I have! People would be so relieved to have a better understanding of this stuff. Even if there’s nothing they can DO about it other than know about it, not being in the dark is itself empowering.
The things Janus shared with us about Amazon employees was chilling and it’s easy to just write it off and say that it won’t happen in our white collar ivory tower world. But I can see how in EVERY system or institution, the most precarious workers always seem to be the least trusted and most surveilled. At my college, we have three meetings per year where all faculty in a specific discipline (psychology, history, library, etc.) get together to discuss curriculum and learning assessment. Part-time faculty are paid to be there and usually, they just fill out a qualtrics survey telling how many hours they were in meetings. Easy peasy. This time, I, as the Chair for the Library SAC, was told I need to also send academic affairs a list of every part-time faculty member who showed up to our meeting, the assumption being that part-time faculty can’t be trusted and might try to bilk academic affairs for more $ than they deserve. WTF???
In my experience, my part-timer colleagues are, in many cases, more dedicated to students and their work and are more reliable than my full-time colleagues. The only difference between them is that they weren’t lucky enough to get a full-time position. And yet academic affairs is sending a message that they are less trustworthy.
I think we have a responsibility to speak out when we see things like this, however small and subtle. This is what I sent to the administrators in Academic Affairs:
I’ve been sitting with this since it was first announced and, upon reflection, I’m not feeling any better about it. I’m wondering why the SAC Chairs suddenly need to write down which part-time faculty attended the meeting when the part-timers will be filling out the form to get paid in the meeting. Maybe my interpretation is off, but it feels like it sends a message that we don’t trust our part-timers. If SAC Chairs knew the reasoning behind the change it might feel less like surveillance and lack of trust for those who are often our most reliable and hard-working colleagues.
I’ve also found in academia that surveillance overreach from administration (especially IT) rarely stands up under scrutiny. The last time IT tried to slip seriously overreaching policies under our noses, one of my library colleagues got wind of it and shared it widely with faculty so we could all share feedback during the comment period. It ended up getting HUNDREDS of comments and they ended up backing down on all of it. The IT policies now read more like typical ones in academia rather than the corporate overlord big brother tail-wagging-the-dog feel in the earlier draft.
The more light we can shine on these issues – for our colleagues and for our patrons – and the more we speak out when we can, the better. But I do recognize that it’s much easier to fight these things in academia where values like academic freedom are a big part of our ethos and where we are often safer speaking out. A friend of mine who has been fighting her library’s curbside service is expecting to get fired any day now and all she’s done is written letters and spoke out at a library board meeting. We’re definitely not all equal in our ability to speak out without fear of incurring consequences.
Nancy, from what I’ve heard from librarians who already have self-checkout technology in their library, they are actually more worried about using it now because use of the touch screens put patrons at significantly more risk. What library would have the time to sanitize the screen after each and every use?
Yes! This is my own experience as well (part from my own personal experience of being a part time employee, and now as a full time employee seeing this same thing happen to part-time employees). There are a lot of reasons. Many times these part time employees are the most dedicated, as this is their first opportunity to get into the profession. Sometimes it is just a job to them, but it is one of multiple jobs they work and they are still very dedicated, where I have known more than a few full-time employees who have since checked out a long time ago.
I also think there is a heavy cost in simply hand-waving part time employees as less trusting. Not only are you alienating some of your most dedicated employees and breeding an atmosphere of mistrust, but a lot of times I see a separation between ‘the powers that be’ and the part timers who are, often, on the front lines of public service. When administration is cutting themselves off from these front line part timers, they are really cutting themselves off from a large portion of the public.
I think this is an excellent point that highlights the importance of LFI, but also in the overall mission of educating the public about the importance of surveillance and privacy. Sometimes theses sort of topics feel oppressive and people do not want to speak up - but many times, all that is needed is for someone to speak up at all.
How have we seen surveillance and automation show up in our own work (if we feel comfortable saying) or the work of people in our lives?
I used to work for Bloomberg and the surveillance was horrific- we had to scan in with badges which recorded the times we came and went and the managers were able to pull up a list of their departments to check the times - it was disguised as a “safety” issue so they would know who was in and wasn’t in the building, which was likely true but it was primarily used to reprimand us for walking in a few minutes late, leaving for lunch, leaving early etc… This was over 15 years ago so I can’t imagine it has gotten any better. We had to login to our workstations with fingerprints (when I questioned this I was told I could give them the fingerprint or find another job…) and we were all well aware that our web activity was being monitored and messages to each other being read. It was demeaning and soul sapping.
The University selected an communication suite (Microsoft 365) based on the ease in which things can be monitored - they did not like the fact that many of us were using university gmail accounts or even personal gmail accounts because then they couldn not be searched/used etc… I see this is primarily a covering their asses move, but the knowledge that every single correspondence can be obtained and all of our documents etc searched is unnerving. I give my local IT person much props for making this clear to us - originally we were even told that if we ran the app on our personal devices just by installing the app we were essentially giving permission for the university to wipe our phones ! (I think this changed but I have made it a point to NOT install any apps and not stay logged in on my personal devices).
What can libraries do to help raise awareness of workplace surveillance and the tools available to fight back?
When I speak with people about it, my biggest concern is how accepting of it they are and we are raising children to continue to be ok with it (don’t get me started on that damn Elf on the Shelf business…). My son points out all of the cameras in the school when we are there, which I had not even noticed and was shocked to see the level of surveillance, but kids are just used to it and expect it and are accepting it. He also just recently learned that the teachers can monitor every click he makes in his google classroom (got caught for not watching the videos…). The students on campus are not aware the full extent of the monitoring on the course management systems and the programs that “track their progress”. I think it is so important for libraries to try to raise awareness to the younger patrons as well as those already in the workforce so that hopefully those entering the workforce have the knowledge and tools to question it. I recently read an excellent article about how the move to the Zoom classroom for students is an excellent way to prepare them for a workforce of being monitored at tracked at home and that’s a very chilling yet accurate way to view getting the next generations comfortable with being surveilled.
Yes, and what about the impacts on our patrons, even in academic environments, in an increasingly precarious labor force?
Thanks I hate it.
Okay but this is amazing. Great work everybody!
You’re right to recognize this. But I also think that resisting these management policies from the safer places does have an impact on the rest of the profession, even if it’s slow and it doesn’t help everyone. I do think it lifts all boats you know.
This is essentially the story of every piece of surveillance technology in the history of ever.
This is really important as we’re thinking about “what to do” about all this. It might feel like sharing knowledge of these practices isn’t enough, because what we really want is to stop them. But helping our communities understand what’s actually happening, confirming the details of what they often know in some piecemeal ways, or at least suspect, is hugely important. It helps people understand the landscape they’re confronting in their workplace, it can help them make decisions about how they work and how they get organized at work.
I’ll kill that little twerp
Oh lord. I know my above comment is about the importance of knowing the details of these surveillance systems, but I neglected to say that when we talk about them, we also have to talk about how they are not okay and we can fight them. Because yeah it’s so true that the younger generation has become pretty resigned to them. It’s not that they don’t care, it’s that it seems immutable.
I just wanted to chime in here with something that happened in the past week. There’s a lack of clarity on whether or not Zoom chat transcripts made available to hosts at the end of recordings include private messages sent from one attendee to another. This article from “Elite Daily” (billed as “the ultimate digital destination for millennial women who are discovering the world, and themselves in the process,” lololol) indicates that the host can’t see those messages, but Zoom’s own support page on the topic doesn’t specifically talk about what is or isn’t visible in the transcripts.
This left some colleagues and I a little worried about some of the DMs we may or may not have sent to each other during some staff meetings that got a little boring or ridiculous. I tried to reassure them by saying, “What are they going to do? Tell us we’re in trouble because they were spying on us?” thinking they wouldn’t do that in the same way that like, publishers wouldn’t sue us for using book chapters in these days of disrupted online instruction, and then I realized… yeah, but maybe they would.
Anyway, we have other ways of communicating with each other so whatever the truth about Zoom chat transcripts may be, we won’t be carrying on in that way anymore. This kind of mealymouthed “is it or isn’t it safe/private?” nonsense from companies like them is so typical and so frustrating.
I’ve seen some people with admin privileges go in and confirm that the private dms are logged, so I think you should proceed as if it’s true. I haven’t gone through and looked at our own chat logs because I don’t want to find something that was not meant for me, and also I don’t even keep the logs for very long. Keep in mind this is only for recorded meetings, so not all of them. But yeah, definitely something to be vigilant about in the future.