Introducing Our New Best Friend, GDPR

You’ve seen the letters GDPR in every single email you’ve gotten from a vendor or a mailing list lately, but you might not be exactly sure what it is. With GDPR enforcement starting on May 25, it’s time for a crash course in what GDPR is, and why it could be your new best friend whether you are in the EU or not.

First, you can check out the EU GDPR information site (though it probably will be under heavy load for a few days!) for lots of information on this. It’s important to recognize, however, that for universities like mine with a campus located in the EU, it has created additional oversight to ensure that our own data collection practices are GDPR compliant, or that we restrict people residing in the EU from accessing those services. You should definitely work with legal counsel on your own campus in making any decisions about GDPR compliance.

So what does the GDPR actually mean in practice? The requirements break down this way: any company which holds the data of any EU citizen must provide data controls, no matter where the company or the data is located. This means that every large web platform and pretty much every library vendor must comply or face heavy fines. The GDPR offers the following protections for personally identifiable information, which includes things like IP address: privacy terms and conditions must be written in easy to understand language, data breaches require quick notifications, the right to know what data is being collected and to receive a copy of it, the “right to be forgotten” or data erasure (unless it’s in the public interest for the data to be retained), ability to transfer data between providers, systems to be private by design and only collect necessary data, and for companies to appoint data privacy officers without conflicts of interest. How this all works in practice is not consistent, and there will be a lot to be worked out in the courts in the coming years. Note that Google recently lost several right to be forgotten cases, and were required to remove information that they had originally stated was in the public interest to retain.

The GDPR has actually been around for a few years, but May 25, 2018 was set as the enforcement date, so many people have been scrambling to meet that deadline. If you’re reading this today, there’s probably not a lot of time to do anything about your own practices, but if you haven’t yet reviewed what your vendors are doing, this would be a good time. Note too that there are no rights guaranteed for any Americans, and several companies, including Facebook, have moved data governance out of their Irish office to California to be out of reach of suits brought in Irish courts.

Where possible, however, we should be using all the features at our disposal. As librarians, we already tend to the “privacy by design” philosophy, even though we aren’t always perfect at it. As I wrote in my last post, my library worked on auditing our practices and creating a new privacy policy, and one of the last issues was trying to figure out how we would approach some of our third-party services which we need to provide services to our patrons but that did not allow deleting data. Now some of those features are being made available. For example, Google Analytics now has a data retention feature, which allows you to set data to expire and be deleted after a certain amount of time. Google provides some more detailed instructions to ensure that you are not accidentally collecting personally-identifiable information in your analytics data.

Lots of our library vendors provide personal account features, and those too are subject to these new GDPR features. This means that there are new levels of transparency about what kinds of tracking they are doing, and greater ability for patrons to control data, and for you to control data on the behalf of patrons. Here are a few example vendor GDPR compliance statements or FAQs:

Note that some vendors, like EBSCO, are moving to HTTPS for all sites that weren’t before, and so this may require changes to proxy servers or other links.

I am excited about GDPR because no matter where we are located, it gives us new tools to defend the privacy of our patrons. Even better than that, it is providing lots of opportunities on our campuses to talk about privacy with all stakeholders. At my institution, the library has been able to showcase our privacy expertise and have some good conversations about data governance and future goals for privacy. It doesn’t mean that all our problems will be solved, but we are moving in a more positive direction.

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