The post-Snowden digital divide: the ability to understand and use privacy tools

SOURCE: bit.ly/1MmtJsM

Ian Clark’s long academic paper in the Journal of Radical Librarianship takes a while to get to the point, but when it arrives, it’s a very, very good one: in the post-Snowden era, we can no longer address the “digital divide” just by providing access — we also have to teach people how their online usage is spied on, how that will harm them, and what to do about it.

In the US, there are ongoing efforts to ensure that individuals’ intellectual privacy is protected. Despite the aggressive pursuit of surveillance powers by the UK government, there are currently no such efforts in the UK to provide individuals with the tools to access information online freely and without fear of reprisals. This inaction is at odds with the stated principles of organisations such as Ifla and Cipfa who endorse the right for individuals to access information online confidentially. At present, this is not possible in the UK as the public library network does not ensure the privacy of those who use it, thus inhibiting intellectual privacy. The situation is exacerbated by the outsourcing of digital skills support to companies with a vested interest in not introducing individuals to encryption technologies because it will inhibit the companies’ ability to generate profit.

However, there are feasible actions that could be taken now. Defaulting to privacy enhancing search engines such as DuckDuckGo would ensure the protection of the intellectual privacy of users, as would the incorporation of the HTTPS protocol on websites and the use of ad-blockers on browsers. However, these are only first steps towards protecting the intellectual privacy of users. Efforts are already taking place in the UK to provide training on online privacy tools such as Tor Browser (Brass Horn Communications, 2015).

Librarians should investigate the possibilities to work with such organisations to protect users, either within the context of their working environment, or as professionals seeking to ensure the privacy of individuals more broadly. Consequently, librarians should commit to familiarising themselves with existing privacy enabling tools to ensure they can advocate for them and provide support in their use.

They should also seek to work with open-source developers to deliver products that provide a better user experience, helping to “professionalize the practice of open-source development” (Sinclair Brody, 2016). As various professional organisations have stated the need to ensure intellectual privacy, there is a responsibility for library and information professionals in a post-Snowden environment to take steps to tackle this aspect of digital inequality. Librarians have played a key role in tackling digital inequality and must continue to work to eradicate such inequality, ensuring autonomy of internet use and supporting citizens in protecting themselves from mass state and corporate surveillance.

Author: Amanda Walker

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