Privacy Concerns in Archival Records

Margot Note

Margot Note

October 04, 2021

Archival records contain important historical information. As primary sources, they allow users to get as close to the past as possible. Often they contain information that legally or ethically should remain private. 

Subjects are often unaware of their representation in archival collections, which leaves archivists in the difficult position of allowing access while protecting individuals’ rights. Archivists attempt to resolve this conflict so that the interests of the repository, records creators, and researchers are supported. The balancing act is further complicated with the digital world as archivists determine the subjects’ expectations regarding online access. 

The Limits of the Law

Sometimes the decision to withhold information from digital archives is clear under federal law, such as personal health information or educational records protected under the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) and the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), respectively. In addition, laws also protect against the disclosure of personally identifiable information (PII). PII includes any information maintained by an organization, including but not limited to education, financial transactions, medical history, and criminal or employment history. It also includes information that can be used to determine an individual’s identity, such as their name, social security number, date and place of birth, and other personal information linked to an individual.

The 24/7/365 Reading Room 

There are legal and ethical obligations associated with the digitization of archival records. For example, the Society of American Archivists (SAA) code of ethics requires that archivists protect the privacy rights of both donors and the individuals and groups who are the subjects of archival records and deal with the ethical obligation to provide access to historical sources for research purposes. 

Digital records present different legal concerns because with digitization, the materials become more available, and with broad access, any private information disclosed can reach a much wider audience and, therefore, cause more harm. In addition, the obscurity of confidential information in physical collections is troubled by digital archives, which enable precise searching across documents by a global audience; before digitization, researchers would have to travel to reading rooms and search physically within collections to find the same information. 

Forget Me Not

The right to be forgotten is the right to have private information about an individual be eliminated from Internet searches and other directories under some circumstances. The specifications of this right are still being developed and argued internationally. However, as more materials become digitized and available online, materials that we thought were limited in availability—like a negative news story about an individual in a local paper published decades ago—now live online seemingly forever. 

Archives become publishers of the material in digital collections, making it more likely to be held legally liable for publishing private information. Protecting private information is a challenging issue in archives since many archivists see their responsibilities of maintaining privacy and promoting access as values in conflict. 

Strategies for Privacy in Archives 

Consequently, archivists have employed strategies to assess sensitive information and reduce the risks of causing privacy-related harms. Archivists have replicated many processes to help ameliorate privacy risks in digitization work, including selection policies and procedures, contacting donors and subjects for permissions, and redacting sensitive information. Strategies include careful selection of materials for digital publication, the possibility of getting input from third parties mentioned in archival collections, creating policies for handling potential complaints, and tailoring access to sensitive collections. In addition, archives often include take-down policies that allow archival subjects to request the removal of online material. 

For example, if archivists find records with PII, they must judge their potential value for research and decide the next steps. If the record has high potential research value, archivists will want to keep it in the collection. They can physically remove it from the collection and place it in a restricted box, or keep it with the collection and redact only the sensitive information. Redaction can be done for digital documents by software and physical documents by obscuring the information and making a copy. If the document has no research value, archivists can deaccession it and officially remove it from the collection.

Supporting Everyone’s Interest

No matter what strategies they use, archivists must balance legal mandates and ethical concerns with accessibility. They should provide as much access as is responsible, given the information the records of enduring value contain. 

Margot Note

Margot Note

Margot Note, archivist, consultant, and Lucidea Press author is a regular blogger and popular webinar presenter for Lucidea, provider of ArchivEra, archival collections management software for today’s challenges and tomorrow’s opportunities. Read more of Margot’s posts here.

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