Librarians in Massachusetts are working to give their patrons a chance to opt-out of pervasive surveillance. Partnering with the ACLU of Massachusetts, area librarians have been teaching and taking workshops on how freedom of speech and the right to privacy are compromised by the surveillance of online and digital communications -- and what new privacy-protecting services they can offer patrons to shield them from unwanted spying of their library activity.

It's no secret that libraries are among our most democratic institutions. Libraries provide access to information and protect patrons' right to explore new ideas, no matter how controversial or subversive. Libraries are where all should be free to satisfy any information need, be it for tax and legal documents, health information, how-to guides, historical documents, children's books, or poetry.

And protecting unfettered access to information is important whether that research is done using physical books or online search engines. But now it has become common knowledge that governments and corporations are tracking our digital lives, and that surveillance means our right to freely research information is in jeopardy.

When you know that people are recording what you are doing online or if you know cops, the FBI, the DEA, or ICE could access your library or digital history, chances are you are not going to say or research what you might otherwise. Self-censorship ensues because surveillance chills speech.

Library Patrons Are At Risk

Researching online often means leaving a trail of information about yourself, including your location, what websites you visited and for how long, with whom you chatted or emailed, and what you downloaded and printed. All of these details are all easy to associate with a particular computer user when insufficient privacy protections are in place.

This information is often thoughtlessly collected and stored, allowing government or law enforcement to make requests for library computer records. Meanwhile, companies may already have these records and use them to manipulate your search results and refine their contextual advertising. Worse a government may assert that users have "no reasonable expectation of privacy" when we "hand over" information to companies like Google and Twitter, and thus no constitutional protection against a government's searching of these records.

But libraries need not fully participate in this surveillance; libraries can strive to give users the chance to opt-out.

Librarians Take Action

One of the authors of this article, Alison Macrina, is an IT librarian at the Watertown Free Public Library in Massachusetts, a member of Boston's Radical Reference Collective, and an organizer working to bring privacy rights workshops to libraries throughout the northeast. Librarians know that patrons visit libraries for all kinds of online research needs, and therefore have a unique responsibility in helping keep that information safe. It's not just researchers who suffer; our collective memory, culture, and future are harmed when writers and researchers stop short of pursuing intellectual inquiry.

In addition to installing a number of privacy-protecting tools on public PCs at the Watertown library, Alison has been teaching patron computer classes about online privacy and organized a series of workshops for Massachusetts librarians to get up to speed on the ins and outs of digital surveillance.

It all started with a zine Alison and some cohorts from Radical Reference made as a quick and dirty introduction to basic privacy and security tools. These zines were distributed at two conferences for information professionals: Urban Librarians Unite and Radical Archives.

The zines were a huge hit, and from there, Alison was inspired. She contacted the ACLU of Massachusetts, and invited them to join her in teaching privacy workshops to other librarians all over the state. It was an obvious choice: the ACLU of Massachusetts' Technology for Liberty project has done ground-breaking work on privacy, and the website and blog (run by Kade Crockford) is an incredible resource for privacy news, legislation, and advocacy.

Jessie Rossman, ACLU staff attorney, and Kade Crockford, Director of the Technology for Liberty Project at the ACLU of Mass., worked with Alison to create a three-hour workshop. Offering a broad outline of digital surveillance issues, the legal rights and responsibilities of librarians in Massachusetts, and an online privacy toolkit of software that can be installed on library PCs or taught to patrons in computer classes, the workshop has now been replicated multiple times and more have been scheduled across the state.

Digital Privacy is an Intellectual Freedom Issue

Although many librarians may be understandably new to the topic of online surveillance, information professionals are not new to defending intellectual freedom and the right to read and voice dissenting opinions, as well as the rights of historically marginalized people who continue to be under the most surveillance.

Librarians are known for refusing requests from local law enforcement soliciting details on user browsing and borrowing records. The ALA has counted privacy among its core values since 1939, recognizing it as essential to free speech and intellectual freedom. And the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions is a signatory on the Thirteen International Principles on the Application of Human Rights to Communications Surveillance. As Kade Crockford puts it, "Perhaps more than anyone in our society, librarians represent the values that make a democracy strong, intellectual freedom foremost among them."

Branching Out

Since attending these workshops, multiple Massachusetts libraries have installed the Tor browser on all of their public PCs. Several libraries are coordinating their own computer privacy classes. Others have installed Firefox with privacy-protecting browser plugins like, Ad-Block Plus, and The Electronic Frontier Foundation's HTTPS Everywhere and Privacy Badger tools. Still more are setting up Tor middle relays on their libraries' networks. One librarian said that the workshop made her feel "thoroughly empowered…[to] help stop illegal surveillance against my patrons." Amazing.

If you're a patron, share this article with your librarian. If you're a librarian, contact us to get information on how to become more engaged in digital privacy. We've listed some great tools for you to explore and download, so please be in touch and let us know how it goes.

Contact to share your story or request more information, or contact to host the privacy workshop at your library. Together, we'll protect the users and preserve our right to research and learn, unhindered by the pernicious effects of overbroad surveillance. We hope you'll join us.

(Images: ACLU; Jessamyn)

Alison Macrina and April Glaser