Libraries at the forefront of the digital privacy movement

Illustration of computer keyboard with "privacy" written on keys

It's become cliché these days to talk about the death of privacy. As we increasingly live our lives online, we're constantly sharing details about our interests and preferences, whether willingly with social media, or to the hundreds of advertisers and analytics companies that lurk near invisible under the surface of the websites we visit.

The services we rely on from companies like Google and Facebook are anything but free - we pay by forking over near total access to our personal data. And the most frightening, Orwellian problem of all: thanks to the revelations of Edward Snowden, we've learned that intelligence agencies like the National Security Agency in the US and GCHQ in the UK have been secretly collecting, storing, and analyzing the digital communications of people across the globe, including data belonging to their own citizens. It's no wonder that in this new normal of digital insecurity, people constantly lament our vanishing privacy.

Librarians can help resurrect privacy in the digital age

But we librarians can stand up and resist the erosion of this fundamental civil liberty, and help resurrect privacy in the digital age. Libraries have always counted privacy as one of our essential core values, recognizing the relationship between privacy and intellectual freedom.

Without privacy, it isn't possible to read, write, research, and speak freely - the loss of privacy has a chilling effect on these freedoms. The death of privacy thus represents an existential threat to libraries, which is why librarians are integral to the fight against privacy threats from overbroad government and corporate surveillance.

The Library Freedom Project

I started the Library Freedom Project in late 2013 because I was appalled by the erosion of privacy in the digital sphere.

At the time, I was working as a librarian outside of Boston, Massachusetts. I knew that libraries were perfectly positioned to fight back against these threats - not only because of our historic commitment to patron privacy, but also because of the trusted relationship we have with our communities, and the fact that we are often the only source of free, public internet terminals and public computer classes.

I started out by teaching computer security classes to my patrons, then began training other librarians how to use privacy-protecting technologies so they could instruct their own patrons, or install these tools on their public computers. I invited the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts to join me in these training classes, because I knew the ACLU would be able to instruct librarians in surveillance state issues and help them to know and understand their constitutionally-protected privacy rights.

After applying for and winning funding from the Knight Foundation's News Challenge on Libraries, which funded projects leveraging libraries as a platform to build more knowledgeable communities, I was able to take the Library Freedom Project to libraries across the US and internationally.

Free and open source software

In my librarian training classes, I instruct on the use of a number of tools that can minimize corporate and government surveillance and give patrons a little more control over who accesses their personal data.

Some of the tools I teach include the Tor Browser, a web browser that provides anonymity and data security to its users, PGP email encryption, which provides email security and privacy, strong passphrase strategies and encrypted passphrase storage with KeePassX, and Privacy Badger to block online tracking from third parties.

I introduce importance concepts in digital privacy, like threat modelling, encryption, and the use of free and open source software. I share my resources for teaching basic patron privacy classes, and instruct on the installation of digital privacy tools on public PCs. I also offer continued support over email and phone to librarians who have questions about using the technology I've taught them.

Librarians in the UK can do what I've done in the US

My project is big now, but it started out very small, and my success is due in large part to the growing interest among our colleagues and in our communities for digital privacy training. Librarians in the UK can do what I've done in the US.

It starts with having conversations with our patrons - asking them about their digital privacy concerns, and offering basic privacy classes to help them take the first steps to protect themselves. You can also educate your colleagues, and talk about issues of privacy and surveillance at conferences and staff trainings.

You can reach out to organizations that fight for digital privacy rights - just as we in the US have the inimitable ACLU, librarians in the UK can call upon the expertise and support of Liberty, the National Council for Civil Liberties. You can contact me for support and resources. And lastly, you can download and use privacy-protecting technology tools on your own, because every new person making use of encryption technologies provides more protection to all people who want to keep their data safe.

Digital surveillance is a massive problem, but resistance is possible, and librarians are integral to this fight. I invite you to join me and help take back our privacy rights in the digital age.

Watch Alison Macrina speak at the 'Libraries and privacy' event


Image source: "Privacy" by g4ll4is, used under CC BY-SA 2.0 / Original cropped and resized


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