Healthy Fear, Healthy Habits: Teaching Privacy to Patrons

Digital peeping toms. That phrase gives you the chills, doesn't it? It scary to think that your activity online can be tracked by corporations, the government, hackers, and other nefarious (and seemingly un-nefarious) entities. But with proper education, Internet users can fight back against these digital creeps.  


Privacy has always been an important topic in the library world. And with the Snowden revelations of NSA spying, programming around privacy is in higher demand. Scott Pinkelman, digital literacy innovation specialist at the Free Library of Philadelphia, recently presented on this important topic at the Digital Shift online conference.

The Drawbacks of Digital Inclusion

One of the most interesting points Scott made was that digital inclusion has drawbacks. This is sort of a hard truth to swallow. We library folk are committed to bridging the digital divide by providing access to and guidance about technology.

But the reality is that technology is complicated, and while there is good that comes from access to it … there are also some negatives.

In a paper called Joining the Surveillance Society, Seeta Peña Gangadharan of the Open Technology Institute explains how digital inclusion might not always be positive:

"As tracking and targeting practices become more widespread, members of underserved communities — typically the poor, communities of color, immigrants, and indigenous groups — may be at greater risk of data-driven discrimination than other Internet users."

This Slate article (also written by Seeta) does a good job of defining what data-driven discrimination is. Essentially, big data is not consistent. And when websites or services rely on big data, certain groups are at a disadvantage.

The study concludes that education about privacy and surveillance needs to be incorporated into digital literacy education. Seeta specifically suggests that educators need to develop expertise to handle questions on this sensitive subject.

Libraries: Up for the Privacy Challenge

Library staff, of course, is in a natural position to help people tackle privacy concerns. At the Free Library of Philadelphia, Scott has found that privacy is very much a concern among his patrons. But at the same time, he's also found that some have incorrect assumptions about how privacy is violated online. 

He offered his own take on why online privacy can be such a confusing topic: "Internet services come in many different forms and how they operate isn't always clear." In other words, the Internet isn't a monolithic entity. Different programs and services have different policies on how they use and potentially share your personal information.

Simple Steps for Teaching Privacy

Although privacy issues can be a challenge to teach, Scott recommends a few simple steps for digital literacy educators:

  1. Provide basic privacy instruction. Librarians need to be able to show patrons how to perform a few key privacy tasks, such as managing cookies, adjusting privacy settings on a browser, and using "do not track" features.
  2. Be able to explain free versus paid Internet services. Patrons need to understand the tradeoffs of using a free service. There's an old Internet saying: "When the service is free, you are (probably) the product."
  3. Use concrete examples. Explain a topic like commercial data tracking in the context of the targeted advertisements that show up on Facebook. Find out what Internet services patrons are using so you can better explain what privacy issues might affect them.
  4. Give patrons some tools they can use right away. Tools Scott recommended were Duck Duck Go (a browser that doesn't track your activity), Privacy Badger (a browser extension for Chrome and Firefox that blocks spying ads), and OpenVPN (a secure virtual private network). 
  5. Stay on top of tech news. Following a handful of mainstream tech blogs can help you keep track of the latest security and privacy breaches as well as the newest tools for protection.
  6. The NSA spying scandal shouldn't be taboo. The final point Scott made was that librarians need to be informed and educated on the NSA spying revelations. It's a heated, political topic and it will come up when you're teaching privacy. You don't need to take a stance on it, but you do need to acknowledge it exists and be able to answer questions about it. Following tech and general news sources on the subject can help you keep informed.    

Resource on Privacy

Scott recommended a few websites for building curriculum:

Scott's resources for teaching the NSA Scandal:

Here are a few TechSoup and TechSoup for Libraries resources: