Technology

How these librarians are changing how we think about digital privacy

values & ideals

The Library Freedom Project aims to train librarians in the basics of digital surveillance, adding to a long tradition of public libraries standing in opposition to state and corporate power. 

The marble lion Patience is one of two lions that flank the entrance to the New York Public Library.
Michael Noble Jr./AP/File
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A group of privacy advocates want to help you protect your digital privacy using a public institution built for the analog age: your local public library.

In August, New York University and the Library Freedom Project – an organization that trains librarians on using privacy tools to protect intellectual freedom – received a $250,000 grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services, a federal agency. Its purpose: to train librarians to implement secure protocols on their own web services, and to teach members of the community to evade the prying eyes of governments, corporations, and criminal hackers. According to the Library Freedom Project’s website, the group aims to create what it calls “a privacy-centric paradigm shift in libraries and the communities they serve.” 

As society’s sole public space dedicated to collecting and sharing information, public libraries have long been a flashpoint for conflicts over censorship, surveillance, and secrecy. The digital age has accelerated these conflicts, placing librarians squarely between the government’s and corporations’ desire to pursue their interests and the public’s desire to learn how to seek information in private.

“Libraries teaching this stuff can really have a big effect on getting them into wider adoption,” says Alison Macrina, the project’s founder and director. “There are a lot of libraries. They reach a lot of people. They are a place where a lot of people already get introduced to new technologies.”

According to a 2013 Pew survey, 61 percent of Americans ages 16 and older say they have a library card to one of the nearly 9,000 public libraries in the United States. For those without internet at home, work, or school, the public library is a primary point of online access.

Opening secure portals to the public

In recent years, the Library Freedom Project has taught thousands of librarians how to use Tor, a network that enables anonymous web browsing by randomly routing traffic through thousands of relays located around the globe. In 2015, a library in Lebanon, N.H., became the country’s first library to run a Tor exit relay, which connects the traffic to the rest of the internet. Dozens more libraries have followed suit, hosting relays or installing the Tor Browser on their public computers over objections from the Department of Homeland Security, which argued that criminals could use the browser to hide online activities.

The group has also helped dozens of libraries implement HTTPS, the secure version of Hypertext Transfer Protocol, which determines how data is sent between a browser and a website. Using HTTP allows intermediary network nodes to inspect the data as it travels through them, like a postcard sent through the postal service. HTTPS encrypts the data, making it more like a sealed envelope.

With the funds from this newest grant, the group plans to offer online courses that teach librarians throughout the United States about surveillance threats; their legal rights and responsibilities; and how to install and use privacy-enhancing software, such as Signal, a messaging service that offers end-to-end encryption.

These digital tools are necessary, say proponents, because libraries are one of the few remaining spaces open to people from all walks of life – and one of the only places where one can sit for a long time without being asked to buy something. For those without internet access, the library represents a lifeline to the larger world, the only place to seek information about employment, social services, and housing. In many communities, the library is the only place that offers free computer classes. The elderly, who are frequently targeted by fraudsters with fake anti-virus programs and phishing attempts, tend to use the library more than younger adults, and many older Americans rely on libraries for technology training.

“We have largely dismantled the social safety net in the United States,” says Macrina. “So a lot of the services that people would rely on for things like finding a job or getting basic adult education or just having a place to go, they don’t exist anymore. And the library has taken all of them on.”

“Google would love to be a library, only they’re not,” says Jessamyn West, a library advocate, technologist, and writer who created the influential blog librarian.net. “Amazon would love to be a library, only they’re not. And part of that is because they make certain choices about including and excluding people, and partly because it’s really hard to serve everybody.”

Bound with politics

Libraries have existed in one form or another since at least the Early Bronze Age, but the public lending library as we understand it today first emerged in mid-19th century Britain – initially, thanks to social reformers who argued that the laboring classes were spending too much time in drinking establishments. In the United States, wealthy philanthropists such as Andrew Carnegie, J.P. Morgan, and John Jacob Astor donated money to build libraries, which, in the words of Carnegie, are “the best agencies for improving the masses of the people because they only help those who help themselves.”

The creations of these captains of industry drew praise from none other than Bolshevist revolutionary Vladimir Lenin, who in a 1913 Pravda column praised New York City’s public library system’s accessibility, speed, and convenience. “Such is the way things are done in New York,” wrote Lenin. “And in Russia?”

From the very beginning, public libraries have been entwined with class politics. During the parliamentary debate over the Public Libraries and Museums Act of 1850, which established Britain’s public library system, Tory parliamentarian Richard Spooner warned that public libraries would be “converted into normal schools of agitation.” 

Spooner wasn’t entirely wrong: Pew data from 2015 shows that community activists and those who try to influence the government are more likely than others to visit libraries and bookmobiles.

And despite being supported largely by public funds, the library profession itself has a long history of opposing state power. In 1939, as the world was preparing for total war, the American Library Association (ALA) adopted the Library Bill of Rights, which guarantees everyone’s right to access books and other materials regardless of their “origin, background, or views of those contributing to their creation.” In 1953, at the height of McCarthyism, the ALA released the Freedom to Read Statement, which condemned the suppression of reading material as a “denial of the fundamental premise of democracy.” And in 1967, amid growing urban unrest and opposition to US involvement in Vietnam, the ALA founded its Office of Intellectual Freedom, which aims to safeguard the First Amendment rights of all library users.

“We’re anti-censorship,” Ms. West says of librarians. “We will sign onto legislation at a national level that impacts people’s access to information.”

Following the 9/11 terror attacks, Congress passed the Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism (USA PATRIOT) Act, which gave US domestic intelligence agencies broad powers to obtain information about members of the public, including library records, with warrants or subpoenas from a secret court. A provision called Section 215, which expired in 2015, imposed a “gag order” prohibiting librarians from disclosing such requests.

The ALA opposed the provision. To circumvent the gag rule, West created and distributed “warrant canaries,” signs to be posted in prominent places that read “The FBI has not been here (watch very closely for the removal of this sign)” – the reasoning being that, while Section 215 imposed rules against disclosing the existence of secret subpoenas, it said nothing about disclosing their nonexistence.

It may seem contradictory to have a society where taxpayer-funded institutions are actively combatting the efforts of other taxpayer-funded institutions, but American governance has never been monolithic. Indeed, the grant for the Library Freedom Project is named in honor of Laura Bush, whose husband as president kickstarted the current expansion of the surveillance state, an irony that Macrina appreciates. Considering how libraries challenge the status quo, “It baffles me that they’re still around,” she says.

But that’s just one way libraries have gone against the grain. “Libraries are basically anarchic,” says West, likening them to mutual aid societies such as fire departments, fraternal organizations, and early insurance plans. “They work together in a kind of cooperation that you don’t see as much in anything that’s sort of intentionally put together.”

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