CILIPS Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals in Scotland
Navigation Close

Protecting privacy, advocating for digital security and the Investigatory Powers Bill

Category: Blog

The following is a guest blog from Nik Williams, Scottish PEN Policy Advisor. 

On Friday 8th July, Glasgow Women’s Library in Bridgeton played host to librarians, information professionals, library assistants, volunteers and students for the Libraries for Privacy workshop we organised to share ways libraries can play a key role in protecting privacy and advocating for digital security to users across Scotland. Together, they discussed privacy and digital surveillance, in a session led by Alison Macrina, the founder and director of the Library Freedom Project. This project aims to address the problems of surveillance by making real the promise of intellectual freedom in libraries.

Ever since the Snowden revelations of 2013, the reach and scale of governmental surveillance has raised significant concerns as to the powers of intelligence agencies around the world and where that leaves our fundamental freedoms, most notable our freedom of expression and right to privacy. In the UK, the Investigatory Powers Bill has further compounded that fear: it seeks to consolidate and expand surveillance powers beyond those seem in any other western democracy. For the last eight months, we at Scottish PEN have been opposing the bill; submitting evidence to parliament calling for reform and writing pieces for various news outlets, and generally talking to anyone who will listen. Now, as the bill nears the end of its journey through parliament, we need to think about what we will do in a world with the Investigatory Powers Act 2016.

With the bill in place, the intelligence agencies will be offered unprecedented powers to collect our Internet records, intercept communication data, store metadata for phone and internet usage and hack devices and networks, with fragmentary and, in our opinion, unworkable judicial oversight mechanisms. One of the key issues is the definition of telecommunications operators, which the government uses to identify bodies who will be obliged to implement powers in the bill. In the text of the bill, there is no limit as to who falls under this category – which made us realise that it may be used to target libraries.

This is why we reached out to CILIPS, the Library Freedom Project and Glasgow Women’s Library to propose this workshop. Across Scotland people use public Wi-Fi or library computers to browse the web, communicate with friends or family, pay bills and other basic services and so much more. With much of our everyday life now happening online, this list is likely to get longer. Libraries sit at the heart of communities across Scotland – so how will this change if libraries are asked to store details of our online activity to be accessed by the government without our knowledge?

In the face of suspicionless surveillances there are behaviours, tools and practices everyone can take to protect both their security and privacy. So on 8th July, Alison Macrina guided us through a range of tools that libraries can use (or make available to their patrons) to limit and identify corporate trackers, browse the web anonymously via TOR and otherwise communicate securely. Running through a list of programmes and tools that can protect privacy online (a list that can be viewed here), Alison demonstrated that even simple things like installing the HTTPS Everyone plug-in that encrypts your communications with a number of major websites. We do not need to be hackers or tech whizzes to increase security; there is something for every library, big or small, public or academic, with one computer or 20.

In his introduction to the workshop, CILIP chair Martyn Wade highlighted that Alison’s work touches on something central to librarianship in the digital age: protecting the privacy and security of library users is not simply another hook to encourage more people to use libraries. Instead, these protections are a core aspect of the ethics of librarianship. We need to be bold to ensure these ethics can still be honoured in the face of the IP Bill’s enhanced surveillance powers.

So will all libraries in Scotland start using TOR to browse the web anonymously, foiling any attempt to monitor our usage, will ad-blockers make ads and pop-ups a thing of the past, will all librarians start channelling Snowden as they look at their IT systems? Probably not. This workshop was the start of a conversation, what protections can be implemented by librarians, what are users looking for, how much do they value privacy and how much would they be wiling to change their behaviour online to protect it? Every library, librarian or library user needs to decide for themselves what is best for them, what details they should value more than others and what tools they should be using. To support this, we want to create a space for library professionals to come together to discuss how we can take the next step towards a more secure future.

If you work at a library and are interested in this project, we are looking to expand the project to involve libraries in other locations across Scotland. Please signal your interest by emailing Nik Williams, Scottish PEN Policy Advisor:

Skip to content