SPARC (the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition) has released a news post that is essential reading on the current landscape of surveillance systems integrated into library vendor products:
On April 2nd, news broke that RELX subsidiary LexisNexis signed a multi-million dollar contract with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). According to reporting on the ICE contract by the Intercept, LexisNexis’ databases “offer an oceanic computerized view of a person’s existence” and will provide the agency with “the data it needs to locate people with little if any oversight.”
While this contract may be new, it is just the latest development in an alarming trend that SPARC is following. Two major library vendors—RELX and Thomson Reuters—have been building sophisticated, global systems of surveillance that include online tracking technologies, massive aggregation of user data, and the sale of services based on this tracking, including to governments and law enforcement.
The post is also a call-to-action and represents a reckoning for libraries, in that we need to face the urgent questions of whether we can support this threat to user privacy, and whether we can accept being complicit for the harms that these library vendors cause beyond our ivory towers. The author notes that libraries may want to start planning how to recalibrate relationships with vendors that actively contribute to broader systems of surveillance: “Some may be able to walk away from a vendor or significantly reduce their spend. While for many others, it may not be possible to walk away for now, and recalibration may start with a renewed focus on contractual terms (particularly privacy clauses) and taking steps to educate faculty and students about vendors’ surveillance activities. In the long term, recalibration may require building alternatives that do not currently exist.”
DH library folks might consider how they could take similar action to advocate for privacy in DH tools that we use. Finally, SPARC encourages contacting them with information or experience with a vendors that you believe might help inform their privacy work – please email Nick Shockey directly at nick[at]sparcopen.org.