Building Privacy Literacy at the Library

April 04, 2016
By Natalie Orenstein

As longtime advocates for civil liberties, librarians are uniquely positioned to teach today’s teens about digital privacy.

In the summer of 2013, National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden leaked documents revealing the federal government’s pervasive surveillance program. The revelations pushed privacy concerns into the national conversation, causing adults to reconsider their digital behavior and vulnerability.

But one demographic has always cared about privacy issues: teenagers.

“Their thinking around this is really sophisticated and impressive,” said Alison Macrina, a Massachusetts privacy activist in a podcast. “They see the application of privacy not for their own lives only, but the lives of other people—their friend whose parents are immigrants, or their friend who is queer. The real material effects on their lives are very apparent.”

Yet even if the threat is clear, the way to address it is less so. In the era of social media, complicated privacy policies, and shared devices, self-protection is far from innate. It’s a learned skill.

Libraries are uniquely positioned to teach young patrons about privacy. Librarians have long advocated for civil liberties, in part because their institutions have been targets of surveillance. Under the USA Patriot Act, the FBI demanded that libraries turn over information on patrons’ use. During the Cold War, agents asked librarians to keep an eye on suspicious visitors themselves. The American Library Association has fought such requests, calling privacy a fundamental human right.

“A library is an unbiased source of information,” said Erin Berman of the San Jose Public Library. “The public library doesn’t take a stance as to what is right or wrong online,” but can teach people how to use the internet safely and responsibly.

Plus, libraries often hold free community computer courses, making it easy to add a privacy element, Macrina said.

Macrina is the founder of the Library Freedom Project, which promotes privacy and intellectual freedom at public libraries around the country. The staff, in partnership with the ACLU, trains librarians to install privacy infrastructure on-site, and to teach patrons about their rights and the tools they can use in their personal lives to protect themselves. They hold workshops for patrons too.

For example, Library Freedom Project workshops cover government surveillance, basic privacy law, tools like Tor and other protected browsers, search engines that don’t track use, and email encryption programs. The staff uses a threat modeling approach, which asks patrons to consider what information they want to protect from whom, what the potential consequences are if the information is shared publically, and how much trouble they are willing to go to in order to protect their information. The method is meant to guide an individual through what can be an overwhelming digital security landscape and come up with a system that is feasible for them.

Increasingly, the Library Freedom Project is receiving requests for teen-specific workshops. Young people, and particularly those who are part of other vulnerable populations, are a critical audience for the organization. Real and perceived threats to privacy can inhibit learning. If young library patrons or students are worried their data will be tracked, they might not feel free to explore topics that interest them or engage with others online.

“Teens implicitly understand threat modeling because they’re often trying to present different sides of themselves to the world, and trying to play with their identity,” said Eva Galperin of the digital civil liberties organization Electronic Frontier Foundation. They understand why one should protect certain data from certain audiences. The “threat landscape” is usually different for teenagers, who are less concerned about the government and corporations, and more focused on their peers, parents, and schools.

Library Freedom Project workshops can be tailored to teens’ needs, introducing tools like Signal, an encrypted text-messaging app that protects private conversations from surveillance by the government or advertisers. Macrina also encourages youths and librarians to host a CryptoParty, a gathering where people bring their devices and share digital privacy tools.

Despite caring about their own privacy, some teenagers still need help understanding how to protect their online identities and keep their information secure. Berman has seen young patrons, for example, sharing social media passwords and even creating accounts for one another and deciding which personal data to share.

Berman and her colleagues in San Jose won a Knight News Challenge award (so did the Library Freedom Project), and initially used the support to design a privacy-literacy computer game. While they haven’t fully developed the game, they have adapted it into the interactive Virtual Privacy Lab. Users can read about privacy, answer questions, or create their own online toolkit.

Berman said the goal is to offer a more optimistic, concrete alternative to the “doom and gloom” narrative about digital privacy. Sure, it’s still possible to live a nearly private life, she said. Stay off social media and put cell phones in black bags. But one has to weigh the risks with the rewards of a public lifestyle. Teens especially rely on the internet in their social lives and for information they can’t get elsewhere.

It is not a librarian’s role to dissuade young people from living an online life, Berman said, but to equip them with the skills and knowledge they need to make informed choices.

Top photo/ San Jose Public Library

Listen to the Related Podcast

Duration: 21:50 minutes

Download the Podcast

Right-click (PC) or Control-click (Mac) to download Digital Privacy for Teens.”