by Sarah Lamdan and Yasmin Sokkar Harker
A recent Intercept article listed the data corporations vying to build ICE’s Extreme Vetting surveillance system. The list of companies signing on to this project includes LexisNexis, a go-to product for legal and business research, news, and public-records searching. LexisNexis is a ubiquitous library resource. It can be found on public use computers and webpages in public, academic, and private libraries across the nation. For librarians in the legal field, especially, LexisNexis is an often unavoidable product, as it is one of two major research systems for the law.
Civil liberties activists and artificial intelligence (AI) experts quickly responded to the news by writing a letter, en masse, to IBM’s CEO, condemning the company’s potential participation in the ICE program. The AI experts decried the program as being “tailor-made for discrimination”, as it is meant to determine and evaluate an applicant’s probability of becoming a positively contributing member of society, as well as their ability to contribute to national interests and predict whether an applicant intends to commit criminal or terrorist acts after entering the United States. These types of programs have not been proven to be effective, and in other cases, have falsely labelled individuals as criminals or security risks. This program is not totally dissimilar to IBM’s role in the Holocaust as the statisticians and data-gatherers behind massive deportation and roundup lists. Librarians should be active participants in the conversation about the ICE project to build a system for surveillance and deportation.
Librarians are advocates and activists for privacy rights and the protection of personally identifiable information in surveillance, standing up against recent-anti-muslim Executive Orders and making it clear that libraries and information are for everyone. Librarians know that privacy and the ability to do research without fear of surveillance are the cornerstones of intellectual freedom. We have historically been active in the fight for civil liberties, even going to jail to protect our patrons from intrusive government surveillance.
Librarians are also invested in the ethical use of information. The ACRL Framework for Information Literacy emphasizes the role of “using information, data, and scholarship ethically” and the AALL Legal Research Competencies and Standards states that a successful legal researcher “distinguishes between ethical and unethical uses of information”. The Boulder Statement on Legal Research Education specifies that legal research instruction should include “an ongoing examination of professional standards, including the identification of ethical responsibilities.” Given this focus on ethics, librarians should explore and publicize the ethical implications of a system that would use personal data in a way that technology experts believe will falsely identify people as posing a criminal risk and expose those individuals to serious repercussions.
Critical information literacy, or understanding the source of information and the roles information providers have in society at large, is also a cornerstone of the library profession. As librarians, we must investigate the source of LexisNexis data. While many librarians are pleased by LexisNexis push-of-a-button dossiers on potential clients and library users are tickled that they can use LexisNexis products to track down ex-beaus and high school classmates, we cannot ignore the rotten roots from which this personal data springs. As of 2006, LexisNexis had the world’s largest electronic database for public-records related information. Along with Accurint, a huge public records database, LexisNexis purchased Seisint, a post-9/11 creation whose MATRIX system combines commercial and government records to enable the quick creation of “suspects” or surveillance targets. Seisint, and its MATRIX system, were condemned by civil liberties activists as a tool to propel the nation towards a “surveillance society.” It is incumbent upon librarians to understand and build awareness about the products we provide to the public. Especially if our patrons are likely to be harmed by ICE surveillance, we cannot, in good conscience, counsel them to use products under the LexisNexis umbrella to conduct research in our libraries.
As library organizations discuss ways library professionals can advocate for intellectual freedom, democracy, and equality, we should begin by grappling with how to react when our major database providers engage in massive surveillance projects with the government. It is an opportunity for us, as professionals to put our ethical standards and critical information literacy practices to practical use. As the gatekeepers for the databases and platforms that we use for research, librarians have an obligation to honor privacy and civil liberties in their libraries, and to stand up to research product companies helping ICE to build supersystems for “extremely vetting” citizens and noncitizens alike.
Editor’s Note: The above post was originally published on RIPS Law Librarian Blog, a publication of the Research, Instruction, and Patron Services Special Interest Section (RIPS-SIS) of the American Association of Law Libraries, on December 5, 2017. It was removed from the blog on the “advice of AALL General Counsel” as stated here. The authors asked to publish their post on LLB and I am happy to provide a means for this very important contribution to see the light of day. — Joe