Privacy Matters: Anti-Surveillance Education in the Library

by Melissa Morrone, Brooklyn Public Library

Manifestations of privacy awareness play out in a variety of ways in the library.Where I work, we tell each other stories of the man who wanted the librarian to take his credit card and make an online purchase for him, the woman who worried that users of future public computer sessions would be able to see which websites she visited, the people who drift away from library computers with the browser open and their email account logged in.

20150128_PrivacyMatters.jpgApart from quirky anecdotes, however, research shows that, as a recent Pew Research Internet Project report stated, “Americans’ perceptions of privacy and their sensitivities about different kinds of personal information are varied, but their lack of confidence in the security of digital communications channels is universal.”


The Evolving Conversation

Earlier this year I was invited to write something around the theme of libraries and resistance for the progressive online publication Waging Nonviolence. My essay—whose title, “How Your Local Library Can Help You Resist the Surveillance State,” was a compromise between my completely bland idea and my editor's more optimistically overpromising phrase about librarians “saving the Internet”—got a lot of attention on social media and was reposted several times. There's something about the discrepancy between the old-school library and the savvy crypto enthusiasts that catches non-librarians' attention.

Of course, we know that people in the library world have been talking about privacy and anti-surveillance tactics for a long time. Nowadays, Alison Macrina of the Watertown (MA) Free Public Library and the ACLU's Kade Crockford are part of an initiative for public and professional online privacy training called the Library Freedom Project. Their project looks at government and corporate surveillance of Internet users and tools that libraries can deploy to protect ourselves and our patrons.

At Brooklyn Public Library, we've hosted three CryptoParties in the Info Commons so far, and they've all drawn multicultural and multigenerational crowds. Indeed, being in the New York metro area with such diversity on both sides of the service desks means that library staff is in a position to be especially aware of the ways that racism perpetuates inequitable experiences of surveillance. It hasn't become a particular concern just in the last few years for everyone!


Privacy Isn’t Just for Books Anymore

Librarians have a good record of resistance to surveillance when it comes to book borrowing records, but we also need to think of our and our patrons’ online communications as being worth the same consideration. (Our OPACs, too, are gateways to non-transparent data-sharing on levels we library staff may not even be aware of.)

Another argument for incorporating digital privacy literacy into our work is the extent to which our practice is improved the more we elide the barrier between “technology” and the rest of librarianship. Given that our digital lives are actually our lives, it doesn't benefit us to silo ebook access from print book access, or online information retrieval from use of more tangible media.

Furthermore, being able to take a critical approach to the ways that people communicate, create culture, and disseminate information is part of our core work, as is the ability to educate our users on those topics. It does us and our publics a disservice if we perpetuate ignorance and apathy around online platforms. As technologist and educator Hadassah Damien has put it, “if the Internet is seen as this great black box [...] then it won’t make any sense as to what’s encryption and why does it matter, or what’s data-mining or data harvesting and what does it matter.”


Your Next Steps

What can you do? Take a look at the privacy-enhancing resources that Macrina has listed on her library's website and see what you can adopt for professional and personal use alike. Here in New York City, the LACUNY Institute's 2015 conference is about “Privacy and Surveillance: Library Advocacy for the 21st Century.” (And not too far north, the Canadian Library Association's 2015 conference theme is “Privacy and Security: Are You Open to the Public?”)

Librarians, as a broad group, fall somewhere between experts with highly technical skills and “normal people.” Let's put our intellectual curiosity and our role as trusted community workers behind education that lets people gain control over their lives both online and off.