DC Public Library's librarians are lowkey internet privacy activists - Technical.ly DC

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Jul. 26, 2016 10:45 am

DC Public Library’s librarians are lowkey internet privacy activists

After Edward Snowden revealed the National Security Agency's surveillance programs in 2013, the D.C. Public Library has been working harder than ever to protect patron privacy. Here's how.

The D.C. Public Library’s promotional poster for the 2015 “Orwellian America."

(Photo via Movement Media)

Somewhere in your neighborhood is a free computer equipped to secure your data.

That’s because, as it turns out, the D.C. Public Library (DCPL) is a bastion of privacy. Librarians are teaching patrons how to protect their privacy and also taking pains to make sure that personal information stays private on public computers, all in the shadow of the National Security Agency.

One of its most popular event programs last year was “Orwellian America,” a 1984-themed event that included films and lectures on government surveillance.

Held across several D.C. libraries over the course of a week in January 2015, the event series offered public classes on installing Tor, the encryption browser that has drawn the ire of the NSA.

“Those classes were insanely popular,” Adult Program Coordinator Eric Riley recalled, noting that an average of 70 people attended.

DCPL was inspired to host the Tor classes by the Library Freedom Project, a Boston-based organization that aims to equip libraries with encryption practices so everyone has a place where their privacy is protected.

“Libraries are very keen to learn this information,” said Library Freedom Project founder Alison Macrina.

It’s popular, too. The Library Freedom Project is currently offering up to 15 training sessions a month, and as many as 100 librarians have attended each one, Macrina said.

“The broader trend that this speaks to,” Macrina said,“is that members of the public have become much more interested in protecting their privacy in the last few years.”

dc public library

Patrons using public computers at Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Library. (Photo by Flick user Elvert Barnes, used under a Creative Commons license)

This public interest stems partly from revelations about the federal government’s surveillance program in 2013. But libraries have a longer history of advocating for the public’s privacy.

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During the Cold War, the FBI targeted libraries, screening them for KGB agents. In 2002, the American Library Association objected to the controversial, post-9/11 Patriot Act because one of its provisions authorized the metadata collection of library records. When faced with subsequent FBI demands, librarians protested. They shredded paper records, staged protests and sued U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft.

Libraries were eventually exempted from the Patriot Act’s so-called “library provision.” The ALA released a “Freedom to Read” statement and libraries everywhere sought ways to better protect patrons’ privacy.

The DCPL upholds this commitment through teaching digital literacy, with classes on software like Tor, and seeking new software to protect patron’s information, like its book check-out software. The DCPL redesigned the program, called Integrated Library Software, to keep patron records anonymous, said DCPL media specialist George Williams.

“Once materials are returned to a library in our network, the data is aggregated,” Williams said in a phone interview with Technical.ly DC. “But it’s no longer tied to patron identity.”

DCPL IT specialist Lami Aromire described other types of software he uses to further enhance patron privacy. One of them is a program developed by Vancouver-based Faronics Corporation called Deep Freeze. Each time a library computer restarts, the program deletes all personal files and configurations that patrons left behind. The DCPL has used it ever since Snowden’s leaks.

Another privacy issue libraries face is people leaving personal information on public computers. So Aromire uses free software called CCleaner to delete browsing history, cookies and temporary files every time the computer restarts.

Of course, in practice, results are rarely foolproof.

As media specialist Williams explained, “People often volunteer their information online, which defeats the purpose of protecting that information.”

For Riley, DCPL’s Adult Program Coordinator, that’s where educational outreach programs come in. He’s designing a mobile tech lab that will visit communities in D.C. to teach digital literacy. The goal is to engage people in emerging technologies that improve their lives.

“The DCPL is really committed to helping make sure that all residents to the district have the skill and ability to navigate the digital world,” Riley said. “And I think privacy is something baked into library services. Freedom is a core of library service.”

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Julia Airey

Julia Airey is a graduate of the University College Roosevelt with a triple-major in Law, Linguistics and Geography. An alumna of UWC-USA, Airey organized the digital #ForcedToUnite Conference and runs the journalism blog, How is that Legal? In her free time, she like dogs of the large and fluffy variety.

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