Online Privacy in Post-Election America

A commitment to protecting the privacy of our patrons is enshrined in the ALA Code of Ethics. While that has always been an important aspect of librarianship, it’s become even more pivotal in an information age where privacy is far more nuanced and difficult to achieve. Given the rhetoric of the election season, and statements made by our President-Elect as well as his Cabinet nominees 1, the American surveillance state has become even more disconcerting. As librarians, we have an obligation to empower our communities with the knowledge they need to secure their own personal information. This post will cover, at a high level, a few areas where librarians of various types can assist patrons.

The Tools

Given that so much information is exchanged online these days, librarians are in a unique position to educate patrons about the Internet. We spend so much time either building web services or utilizing them, it’s highly likely that a librarian knows more about the web than your average citizen. As such, we can relate some of the powerful pieces of software and services that aid in protecting one’s online presence. To name just a handful that almost everyone could benefit from knowing:

DuckDuckGo is a privacy-aware search engine which explicitly does not track individual users. While it is a for-profit endeavor earning money through ad revenue, its policies set it apart from major competitors such as Google and Bing.

TorBrowser is a web browser utilizing The Onion Router protocol which obfuscates the user’s IP address, essentially masking their online activities behind a web of redirects. The Tor network is run by volunteers and TorBrowser is open source software developed by a non-profit organization.

HTTPS is the encrypted version of HTTP, the data transfer protocol that powers the internet. HTTPS sites are less likely to have their traffic intercepted or surveilled. Tools like HTTPS Everywhere help one to find HTTPS versions of sites without too much trouble.

Two-factor authentication is available for many apps and web services. It decreases the possibility that a third-party can access your account by providing an additional layer of protection beyond your password, e.g. through a code sent to your phone.

Signal is an open source private messaging app which uses end-to-end encryption, think of it as HTTPS for your text messages. Signal is made by Open Whisper Systems which, like the Tor Foundation, is a non-profit.

These are just a few major tools in different areas, all of which are worth knowing about. Many have usability trade-offs but switching to just one or two is enough to substantially improve an individual’s privacy.

Privacy Workshops

Merely knowing about particular pieces of software is not enough to secure one’s communications. Tor perhaps says it best in their “Tips on Staying Anonymous“:

Tor is NOT all you need to browse anonymously! You may need to change some of your browsing habits to ensure your identity stays safe.

A laundry list of web browsers, extensions, and apps doesn’t do much by itself. A person’s behavior is still the largest factor in how private their information is. One can visit a secure HTTPS site but still use a password that’s trivial to crack; one can use the “incognito” or “privacy” mode of a browser but still be tracked by their IP address. Online privacy is an immensely complicated and difficult subject which requires knowledge of practices as well tools. As such, libraries can offer workshops that teach both at once. Most libraries teach skills-based workshops, whether they’re on using a citation manager or how to evaluate information sources for credibility. Adding privacy skills is a natural extension of work we already do. Workshops can fit into particular classes—whether they’re history, computer science, or ethics—or be extra-curricular. Look for sympathetic partners on campus, such as student groups or concerned faculty, to see if you can collaborate or at least find an avenue for advertising your events.

Does your library not have anyone qualified or willing to teach a privacy workshop? Consider contacting an outside expert. The Library Freedom Project immediately comes to mind as a wonderful resource offering: a privacy toolkit for librarians, an online class, “train the trainers” type events, and community-focused workshops.2 Academic librarians may also have access to local computer security experts, whether they’re computer science instructors or particularly savvy students, who would be willing to lend their expertise. My one caution would be that just because someone is a subject expert doesn’t mean they’re equipped to effectively lead a workshop, and that working with an expert to ensure an event is tailored to your community will be more successful than simply outsourcing the entire task.

Patron Data

Depending on your position at your library, this final section might either be the most or least obvious thing to be done: control access to data about your patrons. If you’re an instruction or reference librarian, I imagine workshops were the first thing on your mind. If you’re a systems librarian such as myself, you may have thought of technologies like HTTPS or considered data security measures. This section will be longer not because it’s more important, but because these are topics I think about often as they directly relate to my job responsibilities.

Patron data is tricky. I’ll be the first to admit that my library collects quite a bit of data about patrons, a rather small amount of which contains personally identifying information. Data is extremely useful both in fine-tuning our services to meet community needs as well as in demonstrating our value to stakeholders like the college administration. Still, there is good reason to review data practices and web services to see if anything can be improved. Here’s a brief list of heuristics to use:

Are your websites using HTTPS? Secure sites, especially for one’s with patron accounts that hold sensitive information, help prevent data from being intercepted by third parties. I fully realize this is actually more difficult than it appears; our previous ILS offered HTTPS but only as a paid add-on which we couldn’t afford. If a vendor is the holdup here, pester them relentlessly until progress is made. I’ve found that most vendors understand that HTTPS is important, it’s just further down in their development priorities. Making a fuss can change that.

Is personal information being unnecessarily collected? What’s “necessary” is subjective, certainly. A good measure is looking at when the last time personal information was actually used in any substantive manner. If you’re tracking the names of students who ask reference questions, have you ever actually needed them for follow-ups? Could an anonymized ID be used instead? Could names be deleted after a certain amount of time has passed? Which brings us to…

Where personal information is collected, do retention policies exist? E.g. if you’re doing website user studies that record someone’s name, likeness, or voice, do you eventually delete the files? This goes for paper files as well, which can be reviewed and then shredded if deemed unnecessary. Retention policies are beneficial in a few ways. They not only prevent old data from leaking into the wrong hands, they often help with organization and “spring cleaning” tasks. I try to review my hard drive periodically for random files I’ve been sent by faculty or students which can be cleaned out.

Can patrons be empowered with options regarding their own data? Opt-in policies regarding data retention are desirable because they allow a library to collect information that might prove valuable while also giving people the ability to limit their vulnerabilities. Catalog reading lists are the quintessential example: some patrons find these helpful as a tool to review what they’ve read, while others would prefer to obscure their checkout history. It should go without saying that these options existing without any surrounding education is rather useless. Patrons need to know what’s at stake and how to use the systems at their disposal; the setting does nothing by itself. While optional workshops typically only touch a fragment of the overall student population, perhaps in-browser tips and suggestions can be presented to prompt our users to consider about the ramifications of their account’s configuration.

Relevance Ranking

Every so often, an event will happen which foregrounds the continued relevance of our profession. The most recent American election was an unmitigated disaster in terms of information literacy 3, but it also presents an opportunity for us to redouble our efforts where they are needed. Like the terrifying revelations of Edward Snowden, we are reminded that we serve communities that are constantly at risk of oppression, surveillance, and strife. As information professionals, we should strive to take on the challenge of protecting our patrons, and much of that protection occurs online. We can choose to be paralyzed by distress when faced with the state of affairs in our country, or to be challenged to rise to the occasion.

Notes

  1. To name a few examples, incoming CIA chief Mike Pompeo supports NSA bulk data collection and President-Elect Trump has been ambiguous as to whether he supports the idea of a registry or database for Muslim Americans.
  2. Library Freedom Director Alison Macrina has an excellent running Twitter thread on privacy topics which is worth consulting whether you’re an expert or novice.
  3. To note but two examples, the President-Elect persistently made false statements during his campaign and “fake news” appeared as a distinct phenomenon shortly after the election.

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