Blown To Bits

File under: If it can be done it will be done

Monday, August 30th, 2010 by Harry Lewis

Now here is an interesting Twitter feed: A running report on every book being checked out of all of Harvard’s libraries. Feels voyeuristic to me, but you have to stretch your imagination to figure out how this would be an invasion of privacy. If the tweets are close to real time, maybe somebody could watch who comes out of Widener library right after “Anglo-Saxon Wills” was checked out, and maybe identify the person who is trying to challenge a millennium-old bequest. (That is a real example — at least the name of the book part.) Still, even without being able to figure out who is reading this stuff, knowing that SOMEBODY is RIGHT NOW finding a need to read that classic tome, “Documents diplomatiques. Deuxième Conférence internationale pour la répression de la traite des blanches (18 avril-4 mai 1910),” — well, I just can’t help thinking it is none of my business. The book is about the white slave trade. Am I just a prude?

Re-identification is a very sophisticated art these days. Maybe someone can figure out how to make mischief by correlating these data with some other source. I can’t think of a way off the top of my head. What think you?

4 Responses to “File under: If it can be done it will be done”

  1. Jess Says:

    I can see this sort of feed as a minor input to privacy violation attempts, but given the fact that the library system’s various platforms (a quick google tells me that HOLLIS is still in use: is it still green-screens?) have access to all checkout info, maybe a determined attacker would just break the system security rather than correlating? Perhaps there are a few opportunities for social engineering at one of Harvard’s many libraries, once an attacker knows that a book that truly offends him/her has been borrowed? If the book is at all uncommon, perhaps this could be related to the “recall” functionality. It doesn’t seem it would be out of reach for anyone on library staff to get this info with no work at all. I doubt correlation is the weakest link here.

  2. Tyler Moore Says:

    Here is your reidentification opportunity: use Google Latitude ( or Facebook Places to get real-time updates of your friends’ locations. Whenever you see a friend wander into Widener, correlate the time they leave with the timestamp in the feed. You could only reidentify your friends’ book-browsing habits, but given that Facebook Places is opt-out, then you can find the locations of many people who wouldn’t expect you to know it.

  3. Harry Lewis Says:


  4. Moses Kleppinger Says:

    amazing and beautiful… thank you..