A little less than a year ago, I went to a meeting on the east side of Indianapolis. I was there with about 100 other people that wanted to mobilize communities in Indiana to address issues of racial justice and inequality. Like many of our own meetings, we had breakout groups. (Yay.) We usually begin these small groups by asking each other, “So, why are you here?” I expressed that I wanted a future where my Black family members prosper and live without fear. An activist from Fort Wayne explained that she was there because she was afraid that ICE might deport her husband. After a few of hours of brainstorming, sticky notes, and group reports, we had our strategy and went home to our communities.
In May 2020, following the police killing of George Floyd, we were able to use some of those plans to bring our friends out in peaceful protests in more than 25 cities across Indiana. (Like the privileged novice that I am, I wore a mask with my name written on it. I didn’t want anyone else in my household to wear my mask … but that label should prove handy in case anyone wants to identify me in photographs someday, duh.) It was really the first time I’d been out of the house since the COVID shutdown and I was glad that my friends and family survived without getting arrested or sick.
But, my associates in Fort Wayne paid a much higher price. The Allen County police pulled a man out of a small crowd of peaceful, church-led protesters and turned him over to ICE. In short order, ICE shipped him out of state to a detention center run by a for-profit company … in the middle of a global pandemic. The man, whose name I know, whose friends I met, was separated from his spouse and children and treated like a data point in a system designed to dehumanize and oppress him.
It is very likely that those data points are now owned by a company that we know well, Elsevier. For many years ICE has contracted with Elsevier for millions of dollars to manage and track data about the people ICE targets. (See #NoTechForICE or Sarah Lamdman’s article in the OA, peer reviewed, LIS journal, In the Library With The Lead Pipe.)
While ICE’s contract with an Elsevier (RELX) company for the purpose of surveilling, intimidating, and breaking apart the families of our neighbors is damning enough, Elsevier has taken another dramatic turn for the worse. In 2018, RELX described its purchase of a company called ThreatMetrix. With this company in its suite of products, RELX now has the ability to track the activities of 4.5bn devices, 1.5bn mobile devices, and 700m IP addresses. In case you think you’re not captured in those billions of devices, think again. ThreatMetrix has already been deployed in Elsevier’s academic products. (For more, see Wolfie Christl’s recent Twitter thread.
Elsevier wants us to believe that the purpose of ThreatMetrix is to track fraudulent behavior on its paywalled content (as described by a publisher-friendly author in the industry rag, Scholarly Kitchen), but they have also made it clear that they want to and will sell ThreatMetrix data about “suspicious behaviors” to governments.
I understand that RELX is a giant company and that you’re just one librarian with many potential patrons that might want an Elsevier product, but … please, reconsider your practices.
Every time we link to an Elsevier site, send a patron to one of their databases, review or publish for one of their titles, or send one of their surveys to an email list, we expose ourselves and our community members to risk. If ICE came to our buildings to ask for the reading habits of our patrons, I hope we’d refuse to deliver. Shouldn’t we think about doing the same with our electronic resources?
At the very least, please think about your privilege before feeling safe enough to use their academic products.
In my opinion, the price for Elsevier in a library that cares about its patrons is too high.
Jere Odell. Licensed CC BY