Stutzman: Google exposes Book Search patron records

I’ve written frequently about how the shift from accessing information in offline spaces to online spaces has particular privacy implications. For example, strikingly different privacy norms and expectations emerge when comparing information-seeking activities in libraries vs. bookstores vs. Google Book Search.

Today, Fred Stutzman revealed a particularly troublesome example of how relying on the “My Library” feature of Google Book Search might mean you have even less privacy with regard to your online intellectual endeavors:

I was shocked to find out that saving a book to your library requires that the book be added to your “shared library”, a public listing tied to your Google account.

There is no way to save a book privately in Google Booksearch.  As Google writes in their FAQ, “When you add reviews, ratings, notes, or labels to a book—or when you add a book to your my Library page—that information will be publicly displayed on Google Book Search.”  They go on to write that “No matter where you use these features, the information you submit will be displayed publicly.”

I couldn’t believe it either.  If you want to set up a Google Library, even if it is just for convenience sake, you have to show the world what you’ve been reading.  As far as I can tell, there’s no good technical or legal reason why one can’t save a book privately, or limit their book-sharing to a group of friends.  This decision seems arbitrary and downright scary (or at least terribly ill-advised).

Stutzman points out the incongruence between Google’s policy and the American Library Association’s longstanding code of ethics, bill of rights, and core values, including their commitment to protecting patron privacy:

I must wonder why Google is not adhering to ALA policy, and the broader cultural norm of protecting library patron privacy.  As Google partners with large institutions and attempts to monetize Booksearch, failing to respect patron privacy seems foolish and potentially dangerous.  A patron researching a sensitive topic, or a topic that reveals information about the patron (for example, books about a health condition) will have their information revealed publicly if they add such a book to their library.

I also suggest a read of the comment thread on Stutzman’s post, where a suggestion has been made (channelling Zuckerberg) that all your favorited books should be public in an ideal world. Stutzman aptly counters such a proposition.

This is a serious design flaw (or a seriously flawed design decision). Google must act quickly to give users control over which books in their library are publicly viewable.

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