Editorials and Opinions

The monitoring of library computers infringes on students’ right to privacy

By Julia Sklar
Published: November 2009

If you think that what you use the library computers for is solely between you and the computers, think again. No, the person sitting next to you is not slyly glancing over your shoulder, but, metaphorically speaking, the librarians are.

From their own computers, the librarians can view the activities of all other library desktops and can take action if a student’s computer activity is deemed inappropriate. At times, a mere warning will pop up on the screen, informing the student that if he or she does not cease using the computer inappropriately the screen will be locked.

Other times, this formality is skipped altogether and, without notification, the computer screen will suddenly go black.

Unsurprisingly, many students are unaware of this fixture to library etiquette here at South’€most likely due to the lack of openness about this policy. There already exist several notices posted on or near the computers, warning against excessive printing from teachers’ websites and Powerpoints, as well as disclaiming that printing from Sparknotes and similar sites costs a fee.

Why then, with these other policies clearly noted, does there remain no indication that librarians can view our computer screens at all times? Indignance at having a computer screen go inexplicably black might be lessened if it were expected. And as the divulging of South’s secret cameras in 2007 made clear, policies that bring student privacy into question must be openly expressed and made publicly known if they are to be tolerated.

Furthermore, there is no clear indication of what is, in fact, considered appropriate use of the library computers, nor is it clear whose judgment call this is. Generally, I have seen that the use of such websites as YouTube, Free Rice, and Gmail leads to screen locking, but despite their frivolous reputations, these sites are often accessed for educational purposes.

Many English classes use Free Rice’€a website that allows you to practice vocabulary, and, with every correctly defined word, donates rice to third world countries’€to learn new words at a rapid pace, and the students of these classes must access this website as part of nightly homework.

Gmail, and other email providers are constantly accessed for sending essays and other schoolwork between the home computer and the library. And lastly, there’s YouTube. I personally like to listen to music while I work, so when I’m at the library cranking out an essay, I leave YouTube open in the background so I can listen to music with my headphones’€but I’m still working on an essay.

It seems extreme to have a computer locked on these grounds, when the student’s intentions might have been reasonable. There are, undeniably, students who abuse the library computers, and it is without a doubt outstandingly frustrating when you want to be productive and peers have taken the computers to play games. But the misuse of some shouldn’t mean the constant surveillance of all.

It is true that simply because the librarians can constantly monitor our computer activity at all times doesn’t mean they are. But emails from many teachers and all guidance counselors include a confidentiality notice at the bottom, stating that the contents of the message are between the sender and recipient only. That being said, this library policy is dancing dangerously close to an invasion of privacy.

I agree that there needs to be a way to ensure that computers, which we have the privilege’€not the right’€to use are used responsibly. But I don’t feel that this policy of watching every terminal handles the problem appropriately.

At the very least, the monitoring policy should be common knowledge amongst the students; we have a right to know, at least, that the librarians are giving us no privacy while we use the computers.

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