Making the case for privacy in libraries after an atrocity

We must continue to defend civil liberties, no matter how difficult it seems

There is never a harder time to argue in defence of civil liberties than in the aftermath of a horrific and deadly terrorist attack. It’s easy to argue for universal rights during periods of relative stability, after all, what harm could possibly come to pass? But during times of bloodshed, of anger and of disgust, it’s somewhat harder to step back and make the case for civil liberties, even when that case appears to suggest a lack of will to tackle the cause of the bloodshed. But it is important that we do so, because we can be sure that those that are the enemies of liberty and freedom will be seizing the opportunity (whilst simultaneously failing to see who they share that cause with).

The suicide bombing in Manchester was truly horrific. Words seem inconsequential in these circumstances. What can you possibly say to the friends and family of the victims? There are no words. Only horror and sorrow.

Not everyone is without words, however. As is the case with every prior terrorist attack in the West, attention turns to the motivations of the perpetrator, the beliefs of the perpetrator, the intentions of the perpetrator. Sadly, for some, this consideration of the motives and intentions leads them to consider that it is necessary to curtail civil liberties to prevent further atrocities. We hear this argument made time and time again. We cannot permit a safe space for terrorists, we cannot allow them to communicate and plot away from the gaze of the security services. We must permit mass surveillance if we wish to put an end to the terrorism on Western streets. The reality is that this chipping away of civil liberties will have no effect whatsoever, other than to degrade our civil liberties, limit intellectual freedom and subject us all to state scrutiny.

When I write/talk about surveillance and its effects, I always make it very clear that I am talking about mass surveillance, not targeted surveillance. It’s an important distinction for me. No-one in their rights minds would oppose targeted surveillance. Whilst the targets of such surveillance may often be unwarranted, we accept as a society that the security services should monitor activity where there is a suspicion that a violent act will be perpetrated. Mass surveillance is quite different. It places us all as suspects. It places all of our actions under scrutiny, regardless of whether there is an objective reason to monitor us or not. It is indiscriminate, and it’s an invasion of our civil liberties. It is not a strategy that will have any substantive impact on tackling the wave of terrorism that has affected the West in recent years (not that we should solely be concerned with the relatively low amount of terrorism in the West). Indeed, we will be surrendering our civil liberties on spurious grounds with no material benefit for the state other than to provide it with a wealth of information about every single citizen. A dangerous thing indeed when crisis hit democracies turn to unstable demagogues like Trump.

To date, there is no evidence that mass surveillance would have prevented a single terrorist attack. As Ryan Gallagher outlines here, the perpetrators of a number of terrorists attacks between 2013-2015 were known to the police and/or security services. Post-2015 it continues to be the case. The Brussels attackers of 2016 were known to the police. Khalid Masood was known to the police. The Stockholm attacker was known to the police. Abu Yousif al-Bajiki was known to the police. And Salman Abedi was known to the police.

Despite the fact that they were all known to the security services, the government continues to press ahead with its assault on civil liberties. Following the Manchester attack earlier this week, it has been revealed that:

UK government ministers are planning to enforce new powers that would compel tech companies like WhatsApp and Apple to hand over encrypted messages, according to a report in The Sun.

The report was published less than 24 hours after Salman Abedi blew himself up at the Manchester Arena, killing 22 people in the process.

The UK government reportedly intends to lobby MPs to ensure that new rules — being referred to as Technical Capability Notices — get passed through Parliament soon as the general election is over on June 8.

It is hard to see how this is justified. When it is clear that these individuals are known to the security services, it is unclear why there is a need to facilitate access to encrypted messages (effectively ensuring a backdoor), particularly when it places all of us at risk. (And when I say “all”, I should more accurately point out that it will affect us all disproportionately, particularly in terms of race.)

Many people working in libraries get jumpy about the argument that we should be encouraging the use of encryption in libraries, not least because they argue we should not impede attempts to apprehend those engaging in criminal activity. But it’s important to remember that these tools only really offer protection for the average member of the public, they do not protect those that are of interest to the security services. If you are a target of the state, no amount of privacy orientated tools will protect you. They will protect you against mass harvesting of data, but they will not hide all of your activities from the state.

In all of the incidents referred to above, better targeted surveillance is the answer. Forcing the tech companies to install backdoors, or to “ban encryption“, is not a solution. It merely places at all at risk. Indeed, given the tacit acceptance that there are rogue forces operating online, it seems the height of irresponsibility to make everyone more vulnerable rather than ensuring our security to protect against such elements.

Making the case for civil liberties in the aftermath of any terrorist attack is difficult. Arguing for greater privacy in our libraries is not an easy case to make when government and media argue that such privacy is an impediment to preventing terrorist attacks. The reality is that ensuring privacy protects the most vulnerable, it does not protect those that seek to commit atrocities. The alternative to mass surveillance is not no surveillance at all, rather it is better targeted surveillance. When it comes to protecting library users, we need to ensure we don’t fall into the trap of believing the former, no matter how hard the government or media try to persuade us otherwise.

Public libraries and the UK Digital Strategy

digital inclusion

Are libraries becoming nothing more than data cash cows for the private sector?

Last week the Department for Culture, Media and Sport published its UK Digital Strategy, to much fanfare and eager anticipation amongst those of us with an internet in digital inclusion and how we advance it. The report made mention of libraries as crucial elements in the efforts to advance digital inclusion (yay!), but not quite in the way many of us advocating for public library services would want (boo!). And as for how this strategy squares with the Investigatory Powers Act, well…we’ll come to that. But let’s start with the role of public libraries…

In section two of the report, under the heading “How libraries deliver improved digital access and literacy”, great play is made of the role of libraries. They “have an important role”, they “tackle the barrier of access” and they make “significant inroads towards tackling the combined barriers of skills, confidence and motivation by offering skills training”. All of these things are true, however this role is not the preserve of libraries and library staff alone. As the report makes clear:

“Public libraries work in partnership with charities and private partners such as Halifax, BT, and Barclays to improve the lives of some of the most socially and digitally excluded people.”

They do work in partnership with these private partners and, from the private partners’ points of view, there is a big win for them in doing so. As I’ve pointed out before, the way such skills sessions are delivered is a particular bonus for companies such as Barclays. By guiding the members of the public towards using tools that are, shall we say, less then privacy friendly, it just so happens that they gain a certain advantage in terms of marketing their products. Something, of course, that would not be encouraged had library workers been providing such support (were they to receive the proper funding in which to do so).

Indeed, it seems to me that rather than being places where people can get online and gain the basic digital skills our society increasingly demands, they are becoming a gateway to massive data collection for corporations eager for more and more data to drive their marketing campaigns and, ultimately, to drive growing profits. Let’s make no mistake here, if libraries were properly funded, proper training was provided and the service was delivered according to the ethical principles by which the professional body for librarians guides its members, digital skills would be delivered in an entirely different way.

For example, there is no known reason as to why search engines such as Google or Bing are advocated for over and above alternatives such as DuckDuckGo. They work in a similar way, one is not somehow easier to learn than the other. There is one fundamental difference however. Google is an extremely successful data harvester. Create a Google account, login to your Google Chrome browser, use your Google Mail account and voila, huge amounts of data is being gathered about your online activities. And if you are Barclays, providing members of the public with guidance on using the internet and you just so happen to have additional guidance on the Barclays website, well…there’s certainly an opportunity there for free direct marketing to Gmail accounts. With DuckDuckGo, there is no data. No trail of your search history. You simply search, find what you want and no data is left behind.

As someone who is concerned about digital inclusion, I can only conclude that the current strategy amounts to not getting people online for the benefits it brings to the individuals, but getting more people online to create benefits for corporations and the government. The more people that are online, the more data is created and, ultimately, the more profit is created. Getting people online is good for business. It enables a marketing strategy that is not possible if people remain offline. For little outlay, large corporations like Barclays can get people online, teach them how to expose their data, then take advantage of this for profit and business growth. Let’s not kid ourselves into believing that any corporation is seeking to tackle digital inclusion because, for example, it increases democratic engagement or accrues any other benefit. Likewise, given the Investigatory Powers Act and the mass surveillance it permits, the more online the better the government are able to monitor the people. If you are not online, you are a black hole of data. Get connected, and you become a useful source of information. And what of the Investigatory Powers Act…

On scanning through the report it’s interesting to note that there is not a single mention of encryption technologies. Not one. There is even a section in the report called “A safe and secure cyberspace – making the UK the safest place in the world to live and work online”, it doesn’t mention encryption once. Why? It is the single most important tool available to ensure individual safety and security online. So why isn’t it even mentioned? Because the Investigatory Powers Act is explicitly hostile to it. It wants to discourage encryption technologies wherever possible. Because encryption technologies obscure data from the state. And it doesn’t want your data obscured, because it might be useful for intelligence purposes (it won’t…). Not only is it not welcome for the government, it is also not welcome for corporations. Use encryption technologies and you are obscuring data from them too. Data that they could use to sell you products, to generate sales, to drive profit. Encryption is bad for business when it is used in a way that limits the harvesting of data used for profit. (But good for business when it enables secure transactions they benefit from of course.) As Paul Bernal notes about the strategy document in terms of encryption and safety online:

Which takes us back to where we are in terms of digital inclusion. It seems to me that the overall digital inclusion strategy is not one driven by the needs of the public (if so, why isn’t individual privacy at the forefront of the strategy when privacy is a growing concern?), but driven by the needs of government to get people online for the cost benefits and surveillance benefits it brings, and the needs of corporations that need data to be freely exchanged so that it can be utilised and monetised to drive profit. The needs of the general public are secondary, the prime motivator (for policy makers) is the creation of data. If our libraries were properly funded, if the people working in them were properly trained, that data would not be created on the scale it is when the banks (the banks!!) are providing that kind of support. Which of course, should not surprise us. The weakening of public services is exactly designed to lead to a full consumerist society.

How we prevent this is a more difficult question to tackle. The causes are deeply-rooted in an ideology hostile to public services and strongly in favour of shifting people from being citizens to being consumers. The digital strategy simply makes more explicit the extent to which the government (and corporate Britain) seeks to turn us into consumers driving profits, rather than citizens engaging in the democratic process and using access to information purely for our own benefit. With the sidelining of privacy and individual freedoms in the drive towards a mass surveillance state and in the push towards “digital inclusion”, it’s clear how close that goal is to being realised.

Internationalism: is international solidarity a more potent weapon than info lit?

Could internationalism have halted the rise of fascism in the 1930s? (Image c/o on Flickr.)

In my last post I wrote about information literacy and the extent to which I believe it is effective in dealing with the rise of the far-right across the globe. As I argued there, I believe that the issue we have at present is that a large section of society in Western liberal democracies feel disconnected from the political elites and have seen recent votes as a chance for them to tear down the edifice. In the UK, it has led to a vote to leave the EU. In the United States it has led to the election of a candidate who stood firmly on an anti-establishment platform. What connects these two events is, in my view, a collective wish by electorates to give the establishment a kicking, stirred up by a cynical right-wing that seeks to advance a political philosophy that seeks to further the divide between the richest and the poorest.

I said in my previous post that I didn’t want to get into answers that can lead us on the path to salvation. I was criticised for doing so. I still do not want to get into the business of providing answers, but I do want to explore some of the issues a bit more from a historical context, in the hope that it might provide me with some answers, as well as perhaps highlight some of the lessons of the past.

Of course, in some respects it’s very lazy to return to the 1930s to seek lessons to learn in order to understand the world as it increasingly is now. It’s relatively recent, it’s an aspect of history that every school pupil studying the subject is bombarded with, and it’s a period that has become somewhat of an obsession. Putting all that to one side, however, it’s a good point to start exploring the rise of the far-right and the circumstances around it.

As I noted in my previous post, the Nazis rose to power not on the back of a coherent programme that garnered mass support, rather they threatened to smash the whole system down and start afresh. They wanted to tear the system down and build Germany from afresh. What for them had become “rotten” they did not wish to fix or patch up, they wanted to smash it down and construct something new. It wasn’t about reform, it was about destruction and re-building. This led to growing support as the communist “threat” hovered in the background, as Kershaw notes:

“Panic at the growing support for the communist party (largely at the expense of the Social Democrats), and the wildly exaggerated prospect of a communist revolution, had gripped the middles classes. The ‘bourgeois’ parties of the centre and right duly collapsed, along with over thirty small regional or interest parties (their proliferation facilitated by an electoral system of unrestricted proportional representation). The Nazis hoovered up the bulk of their dwindling support.” (Kershaw, 2015)

The centre collapsed under the strain and, ultimately, people fled to the extremes, whether that be the communists or the fascists. The centre was no longer tenable as a political position. Arguably, given those circumstances, only a strong communist party would have been enough to prevent the Nazi rise to power internally (emphasis on arguably). But to what extent would internationalism limited the rise of the fascists in the 1930s?

Orwell’s Lion and the Unicorn, an essay published in 1941, highlight the extent to which there was a lack of international solidarity to tackle the rise of fascism. Orwell writes:

“Economically, England is certainly two nations, if not three or four. But at the same time the vast majority of the people feel themselves to be a single nation and are conscious of resembling one another more than they resemble foreigners. Patriotism is usually stronger than class-hatred, and always stronger than any kind of internationalism. Except for a brief moment in 1920 (the ‘Hands off Russia’ movement) the British working class have never thought or acted internationally. For two and a half years they watched their comrades in Spain slowly strangled, and never aided them by even a single strike.” (Orwell, 2000)

This lack of internationalism was also reflected by the late Jack Jones, a trade unionist and a member of the XV International Brigade. In a collection of reflections on the Spanish Civil War, Jones recalled the lack of interest in foreign affairs by his fellow workers:

“Day after day at the dock I tried to draw my mates’ attention to what was happening in the world. It wasn’t easy, for the order of debate was sport, sex, beer and, of course, the job. But Hitler had come to power in Germany and their trade union movement was in tatters. The trade unionists, Socialists and Communists were being pushed into concentration camps along with the Jews. Early in 1934 the Austrian trade unionists had been brutally suppressed by Dollfuss. Older trades unionists on the Trades Council were apprehensive and coveted their fears to me, but, to my workmates, Germany and Austria were far-off countries.” (Arthur, 2009)

One wonders to what extent the rise of fascism would have been halted had there been a united, large-scale internationalist response to its rise. I’m of the school of thought that believes that if the “allies” had taken a stronger line with Franco in the Spanish Civil War, indeed, if they had fought for the Republic, the rise of fascism would have been checked (it’s a dangerous game playing “what ifs…” with history mind you). Whether you believe it would have made a difference or not, it seems evident to me that internationalism, a true sense of international solidarity, would have made a significant difference.

Is this an answer to our current situation? Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t. Maybe there are a whole host of answers, complex, multi-faceted answers that we need to consider (yes). There is no magic bullet, no single answer that will reverse the rise of the far-right. But I can’t help but think that working internationally, in solidarity, not treating the problems of one Western liberal democracy as entirely distinct from other Western liberal democracies, might help. That maybe, instead of creating answers for our own backyard, we need to work together with our neighbours to ensure all our communities are safe.

I tend to hark on about Orwell a lot, but there are some words of his that provide some distant hope as to the future. Reflecting on the Spanish Civil War he wrote:

“Too ignorant to see through the trick that is being played on them, [the working class] easily swallow the promises of Fascism, yet sooner or later they always take up the struggle again. They must do so, because in their own bodies they always discover that the promises of Fascism cannot be fulfilled. To win over the working class permanently, the Fascists would have to raise the general standard of living, which they are unable and probably unwilling to do.” (Orwell, 2000)

Those are not the terms I would use, but there seems to be to be a truth there about Brexit, Trump and the far-right across the Western world. Their promises to the workers cannot ever be fulfilled. They cannot bring the utopia that the workers desire. They cannot close the gap between the richest and the poorest. They cannot lift the standards of living of the poorest in our communities. Why? Because it is in contravention to their own political philosophy. By working internationally in solidarity, perhaps we can bring about this realisation a little earlier, and hasten the decline of the far-right.

References

Jones, J. (2009). Jack Jones. In M. Arthur (Ed.), The real band of brothers. London: Collins.

Kershaw, I. (2015). To Hell and Back: Europe, 1914-1949. UK: Allen Lane.

Orwell, G. (2000). Lion and the Unicorn. In G. Orwell, Essays. London: Penguin. (Original work published 1941.)

Orwell, G. (2000). Looking back on the Spanish War. In G. Orwell, Essays. London: Penguin. (Original work published 1943.)

Information Literacy Won’t Save Us; or, Fight Fascism, Don’t Create A LibGuide

“Some men just want to watch the world burn.” (Image c/o Patrik Theander on Flickr.)

In the wake of both the EU referendum and the election of Trump in the United States, there has been a growing concern about the proliferation of “fake news” and the rise of post-truth politics. As William Davies puts it in The New York Times, facts are “losing their ability to support consensus” as we enter “an age of post-truth politics”. This kind of talk is, of course, catnip for library workers because it plays into certain narratives that have dominated the discourse in recent years, specifically the rising importance of information literacy.

Although I would not dismiss the importance of information literacy in terms of education and providing the tools individuals need to think critically about the information they find, we need to be careful not to overplay its effects. Alarmed as I am about the current political environment, I am not wholly convinced that raising the standard of information literacy in our communities will see our way through the rising white nationalist mood that has gripped Western democracies. Well, I’m not convinced at all. Certainly history suggests that a belief that if only people could better interpret the facts we could find our way out of this mess is misplaced.

One of the issues I have with the term “post-truth” is inherent in the phrase itself – that if the current situation represents post-truth, then the period before must therefore be characterised as one where truth was primary and dominated our political and social landscape. There is nothing unique about the notion that fact takes a back seat to narratives. It has been apparent in our politics, in our understanding of history and in our journalism for some time.

In his renowned work of historical theory, What is history?, Carr explores the role of “fact” in historical works. Carr writes:

“The facts speak only when the historian calls on them: it is he who decides to which facts to give the floor, and in what order or context…The belief in a hard core of historical facts existing objectively and independently of the interpretation of the historian is a preposterous fallacy…” (Carr, 1990, p.11-12)

He continues with regards to our understanding of 5th century BC Greece:

“Our picture has been preselected and predetermined for us, not so much by accident as by people who were consciously or unconsciously imbued with a particular view and thought the facts which supported that view worth preserving.” (Carr, 1990, p.13)

In essence, although fact has a place in the historical record, it is secondary to a particular narrative that the historian wishes to present. Our understanding of Greece, as Carr explains, is not strictly factual, the facts are secondary to the narrative the historian sets out. The narrative will contain fact (of course), but it will not primarily be factual. As Professor Barraclough (quoted in Carr) argued, historical narratives are “strictly speaking, not factual at all, but a series of accepted judgements” (p.14).

To a certain extent, Herman and Chomsky’s Manufacturing Consent comes to a similar conclusion about journalists. Much like the historian, the journalist applies filters and reinforces particular narratives, either consciously or unconsciously. In the book’s conclusion, the authors argue that:

“In contrast to the standard conception of the media as cantankerous, obstinate, and ubiquitous in their search for truth and their independence of authority, we have spelled out and applied a propaganda model that indeed sees the media as serving a ‘societal purpose,’ but not that of enabling the public to assert meaningful control over the political process by providing them with the information needed for the intelligent discharge of political responsibilities.” (Chomsky & Herman, 2008)

In the afterword to the 2008 edition of the text, the authors argue that the rise of technology, increased commercialisation and more competition for advertising revenues have resulted in:

“…more compromises on behalf of advertisers, including more friendly editorial policy, more product placements, more intrusive ads, more cautious news policy, a shrinkage in investigative reporting and greater dependence on wire service and public relations offerings, and a reduced willingness to challenge establishment positions and party lines. This has made for a diminished public sphere and facilitated media management by government and powerful corporate and other lobbying entities.” (Chomsky & Herman, 2008)

On the basis of the arguments of Carr, Herman and Chomsky it is clear that public discourse and debate is rarely informed by fact, rather it is informed by the narrative preferences of the individuals disseminating information (this also links in with Nietzschean philosophy – the one philosopher I am familiar with – who questioned the very notion of there being an “objective truth”). This was fine when the media landscape was relatively small-scale, it becomes a different matter when the landscape becomes a vast, unregulated space populated by individuals who reject the responsibilities that come with the narratives they disseminate.

Although Herman and Chomsky’s theory doesn’t exactly fit with the notion of “post-truth” politics, it does have some relevance here. The growing hand-wringing over “post-truth politics” by the mainstream media has been a handy weapon for them to utilise, and one that has helped to mask their own culpability for the current political and social crisis. Under the cover of “post-truth” the media are able to differentiate themselves from the vast swathe of media out there pushing alternative narratives that sit outside the mainstream of post-war public discourse, thus masking their culpability for our current environs.

As Herman and Chomsky have pointed out, the media do not have a good history when it comes to presenting facts or in being “ubiquitous in the search for truth”. Rather it has a history of presenting information that fails to challenge the status quo and rather than speaking out against power they are complicit in power structures and in reinforcing a very narrow economic perspective. This narrowing of public discourse and failure to challenge the orthodoxy has resulted in the media increasingly being seen as part of the political elite. They are no longer holding power to account, they are engaged in a symbiotic relationship where the two feed off each other, one reinforcing the other. When the media and the state become intertwined, loss of faith in the latter also results in a loss of faith in the former, because they have become virtually indistinguishable. Hence we find ourselves in a situation where even were the media to try to hold individuals like Farage and Trump to account, they will be ineffective. Because the media are simply extensions of the system that those individuals and their followers seek to tear down.

And this is ultimately the key. The problem is not information literacy. The problem is that there is a movement that seeks to tear the entire system down (for a variety of reasons – although primarily its source is racism). What we are encountering is not simply addressed by encouraging people to read more critically (although long term this strategy may help), it requires continuous and persistent challenging of those that seek to tear everything down. It’s this that we must consider when we think about how best to support our communities and tackle the threat that they are facing.

Earlier this year, Steve Bannon (appointed chief strategist for the Trump presidency) gave an interview to The Daily Beast where he declared that:

“Lenin wanted to destroy the state, and that’s my goal too. I want to bring everything crashing down, and destroy all of today’s establishment.”

Earlier in 2014, Trump himself declared that:

“You know what solves it? When the economy crashes, when the country goes to total hell and everything is a disaster. Then you’ll have a [chuckles], you know, you’ll have riots to go back to where we used to be when we were great.”

There are clear echoes here of the past. It’s very easy to fall back on Nazi Germany analogies, but here it seems appropriate. Now, as then, we are living in the aftermath of a substantial economic shock, one that has seen the poorest punished hardest whilst the wealthiest continue to prosper. Now, as then, people are turning to extremes for answers. As it was in the 1930s, it is the far-right that have prospered by blaming “the other” and profiting from a clearly stated desire to tear down the whole edifice. As Ian Kershaw, one of the leading historians on Nazi Germany, notes of this period in German history:

“Voters were not for the most part looking for a coherent programme, nor for limited reforms to government. Hitler’s party was attractive to them because it promised a radical new start by clearing out the old system entirely. The nazis did not want to amend what they depicted as moribund or rotten; they claimed they would eradicate it, and build a new Germany out of the ruins. They did not offer to defeat their opponents; they threatened to destroy them completely.” (Kershaw, 2015)

This is where we are in the West. Those that are turning to Trump (or to Farage) are not interested in “truth”, in “facts” or in critical thinking. They simply want to tear the whole thing down. They want to “drain the swamp”. To smash down the system that they feel has abandoned them and create something that puts their interests first. And where there are desperate people searching for someone to speak for them, there are those that are only too willing to exploit them. A defence against exploitation is not information literacy (although this doesn’t mean that we should abandon it, it is still a vital skill to encourage critical thinking). A defence against exploitation is the dismantling of capitalism, the real cause of people’s alienation and abandonment.

In terms of how we tackle this, I have no answers. I’m not going to sit here and bash out some glorious plan that will save us all and reverse the hell that we have allowed to be visited upon us (and let’s not kid ourselves, we have allowed this to happen). But my mind does turn to Orwell (as it often does) and his thoughts when reflecting upon the Spanish Civil War and the rise of fascism. In his essay, Looking back on the Spanish War, Orwell writes:

“One feature of the Nazi conquest of France was the astonishing defections amongst the intelligentsia. The intelligentsia are the people who squeal loudest against Fascism, and yet a respectable proportion of them collapse into defeatism when the pinch comes.” (Orwell, 2000)

The “pinch” has come. We must continue to “squeal” at every opportunity, we must not give them a moment, we must not for one second normalise a vile politics that seeks to divide and tear apart our communities. And we must not ever, no matter how difficult the fight, collapse into defeatism.

References

Carr, E.H. (1990). What is history? London: Penguin.

Herman, E.S. & Chomsky, N. (2008). Manufacturing Consent. London: Bodley Head.

Kershaw, I. (2015). To Hell and Back: Europe, 1914-1949. UK: Allen Lane.

Orwell, G. (2000). Looking back on the Spanish War. In G. Orwell, Essays. London: Penguin. (Original work published 1943.)

Our communities are under threat, what are we going to do?

Image c/o Paulo Valdivieso.

Image c/o Paulo Valdivieso.

The murder of the Labour MP Jo Cox in the build up to the EU referendum vote was a shocking and disturbing act conducted by a man who appears to be a far-right extremist with a fascination for the Nazi regime (I’m being deliberately careful with my wording due to the ongoing court case – I am no legal expert so I prefer to err on the side of caution). It is impossible to view this act without placing it in the context of a renewed neo-Nazi far-right menace that has grown in Europe and overseas. In some ways, discussing this case in the context of the ethics of library work seems pretty ridiculous. But there is a convergence of issues here that highlight the extent to which we are currently failing our communities and urgently need to take steps to protect them.

As noted above, newspapers reported that the defendant in the court case had accessed a range of resources related to extremist political viewpoints. How did this detail emerge in court? It is claimed that his fascination was identified by investigating his internet usage at his local public library.

The jury was told that the day before Cox was killed, the defendant had gone to the library in Birstall, where he had used a computer to access a number of items, including the Wikipedia page for an online publication called the Occidental Observer.

This is a troubling development, yet unsurprising given the extent to which libraries are not a safe space for anyone (although they certainly should be). Of course, it’s difficult to be concerned about an invasion of privacy against such an individual. He committed a vile, murderous act. But we have to be careful here, particularly in terms of our current environs, not to make exceptions when it comes to what should be core to our ethical principles. We cannot, and must not, pick and choose whose privacy should be invaded in pursuit of justice.

The case will be made that accessing Thomas Muir’s internet browsing history has provided proof of his far-right extremism and murderous intent. But can this really be so? Can murderous intent be deduced from looking at the browsing history of an individual? This is the premise upon which not only the Prevent strategy is built, but also the Investigatory Powers Bill. That if somehow we could observe internet users, see what they are accessing, we (the state) can intervene and prevent a terrorist atrocity. If we accept that accessing Muir’s internet history is necessary in order to prosecute, then we accept that privacy in accessing information is no longer tenable. Indeed, we play into the very hands of those seeking to justify both Prevent and the Investigatory Powers Bill. We need to ask ourselves serious questions here if we believe this act is justifiable, and we need to return to CILIP’s ethical principles and consider to what extent we are serious about upholding them.

If we decide that we are not serious about upholding them, then we are putting our communities at very real, very serious risk. We are living in a period where the far-right are rising to prominence with alarming speed. Where they are gaining ground not only in Europe, but in the United States following the election of Donald Trump. The consequences of this are stark. Minorities are placed in greater danger. Lives are at risk. We are witnessing, once more, the rise of an authoritarian, anti-libertarian strain of right-wing populism dressed up as libertarianism. That the neo-Nazi right have achieved this under the guise of advancing liberty (posing as libertarians) makes their rise to prominence even more cynical and deadly. It is in this context we must consider both Prevent and the Investigatory Powers Bill and the impact they will have upon our work and, more importantly, our communities.

One of the oft used defences of mass surveillance is the illogical maxim that “if you have done nothing wrong you have nothing to fear”. Such naïve sentiment obscures the obvious: you are not the one that determines whether you have done wrong. The state does. It also obscures another truism – the state is fluid, not fixed. Liberal democracies do not remain in situ for perpetuity. They are always at risk of collapsing. History demonstrates the extent to which this is the case and recent events have demonstrated just how precarious liberal democracies actually are. It is this that should always be kept in mind when we discuss mass surveillance and it’s this we should be alert to when we consider our current environs.

The rise of the far-right in Europe and the United States is a warning sign about the acceptance of mass surveillance. There is no doubt, thanks to the work of the NSA and GCHQ, that we have the infrastructure in place for a truly efficient and ruthless fascist state. In a liberal democracy, you have the luxury of debate over its efficacy and its relationship with ethical concerns. In a fascist state you have no such luxury. It is used to persecute minorities. There is no debate. There will be no dismantling of the surveillance state under the fascist right, rather it will be ramped up and used in ways that make the previous warnings about the dangers of developing a surveillance society seem like stark understatements..

This is why it is vital to consider where we are in relation to the ethical principles clearly stated by the body that represents us. We are tasked with ensuring the intellectual privacy of our patrons. Our failure to do this in a liberal democracy is one thing, our failure with a rising fascist movement is quite another. Our failure to tackle this question firmly and consistently will put lives at risk. If we accept that, in a liberal democracy, it is justifiable to interrogate the internet history of those perpetrating vile crimes, then what precedent is being set for democracy less liberal, less tolerant, more fascistic?

I put much of the blame of our current malaise at the feet of professionals who have abandoned ethical principles in favour of money and prestige. This cuts across all professions. It’s led to the creeping privatisation of our health service, the academisation of our schools, the erosion of civil liberties and the destruction of our public library network. In many respects, it’s long since passed the point of no return. But if we don’t act on our principles now, if we don’t protect our communities, the far-right will take advantage. They are coming for the people we should be protecting. The success of the far-right in the United States was the latest in a series of lethal blows to our communities. It’s time we stood side-by-side with them and asserted that we can no longer tolerate such incursions and that we will not throw them to the wolves.

Are libraries safe spaces?

Image c/o Parham Mortazavian on Flickr.

Image c/o Parham Mortazavian on Flickr.

Ordinarily, I don’t feel the need to lay out my credentials at the beginning of a blog post, but I want to be absolutely sure there is no misinterpretation or misunderstanding of what I am about to argue. Yes, that bodes well for what’s coming doesn’t it? But I do feel it’s important to put things into their proper context.

I’m a big advocate of public libraries. I co-founded a national advocacy organisation with a number of others to highlight their importance and value to local communities (Voices for the Library in case you were wondering). I’ve spoken to journalists, collaborated on papers submitted to select committee hearings and inquiries, written articles, other stuff I forget. So I don’t think my credentials are in any doubt. I value and defend public libraries and put myself out there in order to do so. But…

I’m uncomfortable with chatter about libraries as “safe spaces”. I wish they were. I really do. I want them to be safe spaces and, in some respects, I guess they still are. But in so many other ways, they absolutely are not. And this is something we as library workers, library supporters and library defenders need to confront and, ultimately, challenge the reasons why this is the case. Because they, like all public spaces, should be safe spaces.

We know that for many, public spaces are increasingly becoming unsafe, and libraries are certainly not exempt from this. The Prevent strategy, for example, certainly undermines any argument that libraries provide such a safe space. Library staff are being turned into snitches, with responsibility placed upon them to observe and report activity that may be deemed to be of interest to law enforcement. When students are reported to the police for reading a textbook on terrorism in their college library, the library is clearly not a safe space. When minorities are in fear because of the very policy that encouraged an individual to report someone for reading a book they deemed suspicious, then clearly the library is no longer a safe space for them.

Further, impending government legislation will very likely make this worse. With the Investigatory Powers Bill (IP Bill) hovering over the horizon (and likely to make its way rapidly in our direction pretty soon), the threat to intellectual freedom and, therefore, the library as a safe space, is stark. In conjunction with the Prevent strategy, the IP Bill will undoubtedly exacerbate the problem for those seeking out “dangerous ideas”. Should the IP Bill make it onto the statute book, then the library becomes even less of a safe space, not least because libraries will be expected to keep records of internet activity that will be available on demand. A safe space that is subject to state surveillance is, of course, not a safe space by any definition. It’s certainly not a place where “radical and sometimes dangerous ideas are born” (although the library certainly should be exactly that).

Of course, this isn’t a problem solely for libraries, it’s a problem with all our public spaces. They are increasingly not safe as state surveillance becomes more widespread, turning all of us into proxies for the intelligence services. Our public spaces ultimately face two substantive threats: surveillance and privatisation. The amount of public space we have is rapidly diminishing, the spaces that are truly ours are becoming rarer. Public libraries (and libraries in other forms) are not the only space that is losing the right to call itself “safe”. If we are to reclaim libraries as safe spaces, then we collectively need to reclaim the commons.

This doesn’t mean that libraries don’t offer some safety for individuals. For those children living in violent households or suffering from bullying or abuse, the library does offer a safe space. It gives them respite from the threats and dangers that otherwise exist around them. It provides a localised safe space that is valuable and that needs to be protected. For the vulnerable, libraries still provide them with a vital space to just let them be. But vital though this undoubtedly is, a truly safe space is so much more. It means being able to read books without fear of the police coming to your door questioning you. It means the freedom to seek out information, to inform oneself on controversial issues without fearing that you will face damaging accusations in a court of law. It means that you are in a safe, secure environment where you can exercise your intellectual freedom without fear of state sanction.

None of this is the fault of libraries or the people who work within them. The problem is the over-arching structures, the context in which libraries exist. It is the state, state policy and state action that undermines the notion of the library as a safe space. It’s for this reason that I argue we should confront head on. If we want a library to be a safe space, we need to confront the Prevent strategy, build opposition to it. If we want people to be able to seek out information freely and without fear, then we need to confront and challenge the Investigatory Powers Bill. Of course we all do within our powers to make our libraries safe, unfortunately for us it’s external forces that undermine and threaten this safety. Much as I respect Mary Beard, libraries are not places where dangerous ideas are born. I wish they were but, as with other public spaces, they have become a controlled environment where dangerous ideas barely reach the light of day. It doesn’t have to be this way.

Digital privacy and digital citizens

digital privacy and digital citizenship

Earlier this week, I delivered a talk at the MmIT 2016 Annual Conference in Sheffield about digital privacy and digital citizenship. The talk covers a range of themes (to the extent I think I possibly try to cover too much ground in one short talk), with everything from ethics to democracy to surveillance to encryption touched upon to varying degrees. As is my way, the slides I posted online make little sense to the casual observer, because they are mainly text light and image heavy. So I thought I’d break it down here into various chunks by way of providing context for the talk (out of sheer laziness, all references are all on the slides at the end of this post in the relevant places…where they aren’t, I’ve added them in the text below).

Ethics

I think our ethics as library workers (as outlined by CILIP and IFLA) are crucial to how we see privacy, surveillance and the relationship with democracy. Two ethical principles in particular stand out for me:

“Commitment to the defence, and the advancement of, access to information, ideas and works of the imagination.”

“Respect for confidentiality and privacy in dealing with information users.”

IFLA argue that:

“Library and information services should respect and advance privacy both at the level of practices and as a principle.”

(The key element for me in that quote is the notion that we should “advance” privacy, we should not be passive, we should actively promote and encourage it amongst library users.)

Compare and contrast with what is potentially coming down the track:

“Small-scale networks such as those in cafes, libraries and universities could find themselves targeted under the legislation and forced to hand over customers’ confidential personal data tracking their web use.”

There’s a clear and present threat here to library and information services, in all their forms. If we are required to retain data on the information seeking habits of our users and pass to the security services on demand, then our users have no privacy and we are complicit in its violation. How we tackle this threat to our ethics is crucial, both in terms of our relevance (if we violate ethical principles as a matter of course, what is the point in their existence?) and, more importantly, in terms of the communities that rely on us.

When it comes to ethics and government surveillance policy there are big questions we need to confront and we need to find the answers that defend our communities. Ultimately the communities we serve must take priority over government policy. Governments come and go, the social inequality afflicting our communities never goes away.

What is surveillance?

Surveillance is presented as a tool of protection. It’s a way to protect you, your communities, your country. But surveillance is not solely about protection, it has a number of other effects. David Lyon, a leading figure when it comes to surveillance studies (I’d urge those engaged in labour and information labour to seek out his works on this topic), defines surveillance as follows:

“…the focused, systematic and routine attention to personal details for purposes of influence, management, protection or direction.”

It’s not solely a tool for protection. When we consider it in the other direction, it’s also about influencing, managing and directing. When a CCTV camera is placed on the streets, it’s not merely there to protect citizens, it’s effect is to manage the behaviour of those under its gaze, to make them behave in a particular way. This is the crucial element of surveillance that we need to consider, particularly when it comes to mass surveillance. Its existence, as Foucault argues, is enough on its own. It does not need to be active, its “permanent visibility…assures the automatic functioning of power”.

slide8

History of surveillance

Of course, the use of new technology in conducting surveillance is nothing new. In 1913, for example, suffragette prisoners had their photos taken without their knowledge, photos that were then used to conduct surveillance upon them after their release. The reasoning? They were a threat to the British Empire.

Similarly, in 1963, Robert Kennedy authorised the FBI to wiretap the telephones of Martin Luther King Jr. Following King’s assassination in 1967, Johnson ordered the army to monitor domestic dissident groups. The adaption of new technologies to be utilised for “national security” purposes has a long history. It should have come as no surprise to anyone that the internet would also be used in this way.

But it’s not as though surveillance was pursued uncritically by the state. In a report published in the same year as King’s assassination, the President’s Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice argued:

“In a democratic society privacy of communication is essential if citizens are to think and act creatively and constructively. Fear or suspicion that one’s speech is being monitored by a stranger, even without the reality of such activity, can have a seriously inhibiting effect upon the willingness to voice critical and constructive ideas.”

Democracy

The ability to communicate and seek out information freely is vital in a functioning democracy. As Bauman notes:

“Democracy expresses itself in a continuous and relentless critique of institutions; democracy is an anarchic, disruptive element inside the political system: essentially, a force for dissent and change. One can best recognize a democratic society by its constant complaints that it is not democratic enough.”

The ability to investigate and critique is crucial, without that ability our system simply cannot be defined as democratic. Post-Snowden we can already see the impact mass surveillance has had on people’s willingness to seek out information on controversial topics. As Penney notes, Wikipedia pages on Al Qaeda et al have seen a marked decrease in views. The consequences of being discouraged from seeking out information on such topics is the impoverishment of political debate, something the National Telecommunications and Information Administration have warned of.

Corporate Surveillance

The growth of the internet has been coupled with the growing importance of data as a commodity. As with all commodities that can be harvested, companies seek to find ways to gather a larger and larger amount of data. As Sadowski warns:

“It has created an arms race for data, fueling the impulse to create surveillance technologies that infiltrate all aspects of life and society. And the reason for creating these massive reserves of data is the value it can or might generate.”

We see this approach taken by companies such as Google and Facebook who seek out new and innovative ways to collect more data that they can use to generate a profit.

Corporations also work with the state, sharing these new innovative data harvesting techniques. For example, Operation Mickey Mouse is a partnership between the Department of Defense and Disney whereby the former studies Disney’s use of technology and works in conjunction to “collect information on Beta testing operations that the popular theme park uses on their customers”.

21st Century Surveillance

Some terms to be familiar with:

The Five Eyes – an intelligence sharing partnership that comprises the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

Karma Police – Initiative launched in 2008 by GCHQ intending to record the browsing habits of “every visible user on the internet”. The system was designed to provide GCHQ with a web browsing profile for every visible user or a user profile for every visible website on the internet.

Tempora – GCHQ programme that led to interceptors being placed on 200 fibre optic cables catting internet data into and out of the UK. Potentially gives GCHQ access to 10 gigabits of data a second, or 21 petabytes a day. Around 300 GCHQ and 250 NSA operatives are tasked with sifting through the data.

slide44

Investigatory Powers Bill

The key thing to look out for here are ICRs (internet connection records). From the Bill:

190 Subsection (9)(f) provides for the retention of internet connection records. Internet connection records are a record of the internet services that a specific device connects to – such as a website or instant messaging application – captured by the company providing access to the internet.

Those that hold the data requested for under the provisions of the bill are also prevented from communicating this request with the individual who created the data requested. So, for example, if a request was made to a public library authority for information regarding an individual’s search history, the library authority would not be able to inform the individual in question. An invasion of their privacy compounded by the inability to flag this violation with them. Ultimately, the Bill undermines the ethical principles by which we should adhere and prevents us from warning our users of any violation of their privacy.

Encryption Technologies

The UK government have been publicly hostile to the use of encryption technologies for some time, despite the fact that such technologies protect every single one of us from rogue states or individuals with malign intent. For David Cameron, the notion that individuals can communicate in private was an affront and a threat. Whereas in reality, in terms of democracy, the reverse is true: invasions of the privacy of communications are a threat and one that citizens should take seriously.

As for Theresa May, the new Prime Minister, she rejects the notion that we experience mass surveillance and yet proposed the investigatory powers bill which legislates for…well, mass surveillance. A bill that has also been rubber-stamped following an “independent” review by David Anderson QC who argued that there was a “clear operational purpose” in gathering large volumes of data about individuals.

The “danger” of encryption

Repeatedly and persistently, encryption has been portrayed as a tool that assists terrorists perpetrate violent acts. This was true in Paris and in Brussels. In both cases, politicians and law enforcement pointed to encryption technology and the awareness of such technologies by the perpetrators as a key component in their ability to plan such attacks. In neither case has it been demonstrated that encryption played a crucial role. In terms of the latter attack, a laptop was found in a rubbish bin, which included an unencrypted folder called “Target”.

There has also not been any evidence in the growth in the use of encryption technologies. A 2015 wiretap report, for example, found a decline in the instances where law enforcement encountered encryption when authorised to conduct wiretaps.

 

Nothing to hide?

Of course, any discussion around security results in the old “nothing to fear” trope being thrown around by those seeking to degrade privacy. This is, of course, a nonsense. Did Doreen Lawrence have anything to hide when she and her family were placed under surveillance as a result of their efforts to apply pressure upon Scotland Yard to investigate the racist murder of Stephen Lawrence?

People of colour, immigrants, welfare recipients and political activists are all in the front lines when it comes to testing out surveillance techniques that are then utilised on the general public. As Virginia Eubanks argues in terms of America:

“Poor and working-class Americans already live in the surveillance future. The revelations that are so scandalous to the middle-class data profiling, PRISM, tapped cellphones–are old news to millions of low-income Americans, immigrants, and communities of color. To be smart about surveillance in the New Year, we must learn from the experiences of marginalized people in the U.S. and in developing countries the world over.”

As true in the United Kingdom and Australia as it in the United States.

And of course, we must remember that the state is fluid, not fixed. It changes and adapts and criminalises. Furthermore, it is not us that determines whether we as citizens have done nothing wrong, it is the state. We simply do not have the power to determine that our actions will not result in sanction by the state. We may believe that they cannot sanction us, but ultimately it is not a decision that rests on our intuition, it rests on the interpretation and actions of the state.

slide76

The tools to help

There are, however, tools that can help protect our privacy. Tor Browser, for example, can help obscure our web browsing, protecting our intellectual privacy as we seek out information. PGP (Pretty Good Privacy) encryption helps ensure that individuals can communicate with each other securely and privately. But using PGP is not easy, it requires effort and a degree of social and cultural capital that not everyone can call upon.

Indeed, for many tools that provide protections, there are difficulties in terms of economic, social and cultural capital. In terms of smartphones, for example, 95% of Apple devices are encrypted by default, only 10% of Android devices in circulation currently are encrypted (estimates from earlier this year). Not everyone can afford an Apple device, and not everyone is aware of how to encrypt an Android device – resulting in what Chris Soghoian describes as a “digital security divide” (which I’d argue reinforces an intellectual privacy divide).

There are also a range of smartphone apps that offer secure communications (or at least claim to). But these must be treated with care. Smartphones are not a secure device for communication, no matter how secure the app claims to be (or how secure the app actually is). They leak metadata like nothing else. Alongside location data, they have a tendency to leak your mobility pattern (ie commuter routes between home and work which can easily identify individuals), calls received, numbers dialled, keywords, mobile device ID etc etc.

Tools such as Signal provide the best protection, but they protect for confidentiality not anonymity. Consequently, there is a need to know which app is best (Signal is a “better” choice than Whatsapp for example). Again, social and cultural capital are key components in being better able to secure communicates and information seeking activities.

Digital divide

Given the extent of the digital divide, it is questionable to what extent individuals have the knowledge and capability to protect their communications and seek information in private. For example, 65% of C2DE households (defined as skilled, semi-skilled and unskilled manual workers and non-working individuals) lack basic online skills (managing, communicating, transacting, creating and problem solving). 42% of internet users use the same password on multiple platforms and only 25% of individuals read a privacy statement before using a service. On the other hand, 39% of internet users claim to be reluctant to hand over personal information before they can use a service.

The role of library workers

Of course, library workers have played a key role in helping to extend digital inclusion. But they have also seen their jobs diminished, libraries closed and services they previously provided outsourced to the private sector, eg Barclays Bank. The consequences of this are obvious. Many private sector companies have no interest in ensuring the privacy and security of individuals on the internet because that limits their opportunities to market towards them or to generate profit from the data they create.

In the case of Barclays, helping individuals create a Google Account then showing them around the internet before closing by directing users to the help guides on the Barclays websites, runs the risk of delivering Barclays ads directly to the individual’s inbox. An individual that, by virtue of the fact that sought our guidance on getting online, will more likely than not lack the knowledge and awareness to understand or limit the delivery of such adverts.

slide103

How library workers can help

A Council of Europe statement (backed by CILIP) on freedom of expression, declared that individuals must “decide for themselves what they should, or should not, access” and those providing the service must “respect the privacy of users and treat knowledge of what they have accessed or wish to access as confidential”. IFLA’s Statement on Privacy in the Library Environment reminded library workers that they have a responsibility to “reject electronic surveillance”, provide training on “tools to use to protect their privacy” and “respect and advance privacy at the level of practices and as a principle”.

The Library Freedom Project in the United States has been leading the way in this area, and slowly but surely it is being recognised in the UK by library workers that this is an area we need to be taking a lead on. The collaboration between Newcastle City Library and the North East branch of the Open Rights Group has shown the way. It is possible to teach privacy skills, to work to protect the intellectual privacy of our users, either within the confines of our work, or outside of it. It is possible. We just need to act collectively to ensure that it happens.

Conclusion

We are in a position to empower our library users, to give them the freedom to seek out information without impediment, to think freely, to exchange ideas freely and, ultimately, provide them with the tools to truly and meaningfully engage with the democratic process. Our ethical principles demand this of us, and we should not falter in resisting government policy that undermines these core ethical principles and that threatens the freedom of our users.

Public libraries, police and the normalisation of surveillance

Police presence in libraries, no matter how abstract, normalises state surveillance. (Image c/o Thomas Hawk.)

In an era of unjustified, economically incoherent cuts in investment in public services, there has been an increasing drive to make various parts of the public sector work together to cut costs (“cut costs” in a very superficial sense of course). One such collaboration that keeps popping up is a partnership between the police and public libraries. An idea that should never even be entertained, let alone discussed as a serious and reasonable proposition.

The latest such proposal is one that would see one particular police force close down its inquiry desks and effectively move them to the local public library service, requiring library staff to assist in the reporting of crimes online for those without internet access at home. According to a statement on the Norfolk constabulary’s website:

The six month trial will run from the end of September in Thetford and Gorleston and will involve library staff signposting customers to police services, while also helping them complete online self-reporting forms, a function which will soon be available as part of the Constabulary’s new website.

Such a move changes the library space from a safe one, to one that is subject to a subtle form of surveillance whereby people’s behaviours are modified by the knowledge that the space is one where the police have a presence, even if in abstract. Effectively, it normalises surveillance. The knowledge that it is a space to report crime impedes the library as a space to freely engage in ideas, particularly in the current political climate.

Take Prevent, for example. A racist strategy that demonises non-whites, it has led to a series of actions that have been an affront to the rights of the individual, particularly in terms of intellectual freedom, both directly and via the culture that it has encouraged. The recent detainment of Faizah Shaheen being a good example of the consequences of not only the normalisation of surveillance but the encouragement to “snitch”.

The experiences of Faizah Shaheen and Mohammed Umar Farooq should serve as a warning to library workers and those providing library services. Where there is a police presence, no matter how abstract it may be, there is a risk to people of colour. Facilitating police reports in libraries has a very obvious and malign consequence. It makes the library a space of authority and control. In an environment whereby people are detained due to their reading habits, using a public library as an extension of the police inquiry desk poses threats not only in terms of people reporting individuals (although this online crime reporting will happen in the library whether the library encourages it or not, the key is the normalisation of the space as a place to interact with the police), but also has an inhibiting effect upon those using the space.

Would a person of colour feel comfortable accessing information or borrowing books if they do so in an environment that encourages and enables the reporting of crime, particularly when reading can lead to detainment under anti-terrorism legislation? Individuals will feel that they cannot access information freely in an environment that has become an extension of the police station (which is partly how surveillance works – controlling and directing individuals, preventing activity from taking place).

This relationship with the police continues to be proposed in authorities across the country. Earlier this week it was revealed that police desks in Angus would be moved into the council’s libraries. And there have also been “community police hubs” (how innocuous sounding) relocating to public libraries. And what’s coming around the corner should very much set alarm bells ringing about the suitability of public libraries and the police sharing space, whether it be abstract or physical.

Earlier this year, it emerged that under Theresa May’s proposed investigatory powers bill, public libraries will be required to store internet users’ records for up to 12 months, again, seriously undermining the library as a safe space for intellectual freedom. Not only does such a move normalise surveillance, making it part and parcel of every aspect of every citizen’s life, but it turns public libraries into a space less about intellectual freedom and more about monitoring citizens on behalf of an authoritarian state. It goes without saying, that this poses a threat to the very notion of intellectual freedom, a notion that public libraries should be actively defending and advancing.

As public libraries increasingly become a place where the state seeks to control and observe the intellectual behaviour of others on the basis of supposed threats posed by organised terror, so public libraries lose their purpose. They cease to become places of exploration and interrogation and become nothing more than repositories of state sanctioned ideas and values. This process of normalisation needs to stop, for the benefit of all the communities we serve.

Post-truth politics and librarianship

To what extent can information literacy address so-called “post-truth politics”? (Image c/o freestocks on Flickr.)

Post-truth politics. Nothing screams zeitgeist quite as much as a blog post about the emergence of “post-truth politics”. At present it seems to be everywhere. Political tweets, articles in national media, analysis by the commentariat. In the aftermath of Brexit and with the emergence of Trump as a presidential candidate in the US, it has almost become a short-hand method by which to describe the current political climate. As someone working in the information profession and being politically engaged, the topic itself is like catnip to me. The notion of “post-truth” as someone who deals in facilitating access to information? How could I not jot down a few thoughts?

A few weeks back I was flicking through a collection of essays by George Orwell (living the stereotype). One essay in particular caught my attention: Looking back on the Spanish War. The Spanish Civil War is a bit of an obsession of mine. Being married to a Spaniard has helped feed this (on top of a history A-level where the study of fascism was the basis of the entire course), and I pretty much seek out as much information as I can on the most romanticised of 20th century conflicts. Orwell, of course, was actively involved in the conflict. Along with many other leftists, he left the UK to join the International Brigades and fight fascism in the truest sense of the phrase.

Reading through his reflections on the Civil War, one passage particularly hit home…forgive me if I reproduce it here in its entirety, but I think it is justified:

Out of the huge pyramid of lies which the Catholic and reactionary press all over the world built up, let me take just one point — the presence in Spain of a Russian army [Note: the Russians provided strategic support and hardware for Republican elements, but did not send in their army]. Devout Franco partisans all believed in this; estimates of its strength went as high as half a million. Now, there was no Russian army in Spain. There may have been a handful of airmen and other technicians, a few hundred at the most, but an army there was not. Some thousands of foreigners who fought in Spain, not to mention millions of Spaniards, were witnesses of this. Well, their testimony made no impression at all upon the Franco propagandists, not one of whom had set foot in Government Spain. Simultaneously these people refused utterly to admit the fact of German or Italian intervention at the same time as the Germany and Italian press were openly boasting about the exploits of their’ legionaries’. I have chosen to mention only one point, but in fact the whole of Fascist propaganda about the war was on this level.

This kind of thing is frightening to me, because it often gives me the feeling that the very concept of objective truth is fading out of the world. After all, the chances are that those lies, or at any rate similar lies, will pass into history.

Orwell wrote these words in 1943.

Post-truth politics is, ultimately, a fancy new term for an age old…truth. In many ways this is hardly surprising. There is a tendency to re-package old ideas and present them as somehow new challenges for a new generation, when quite often they are old ideas that are re-packaged and presented as somehow new [citation needed].

When it comes to Brexit though, I wonder to what extent the vote to leave can simply be blamed on untruths or a sense of “post-truth politics”. Of course perhaps the prime example of the notion of post-truth politics was the infamous Vote Leave bus that suggested £350m being sent to the EU could be spent on the NHS instead. Despite being dismissed as “misleading” by the Chair of the Statistics Authority, the statement clearly influenced some, as demonstrated in this recent piece by Faisal Islam for The Guardian:

“I would go mad if this money doesn’t go into the NHS, I will go mad. I want to be assured that this money – because that’s why I voted to come out,” says Shirley.

But to what extent was the reality of Brexit really about “post-truth politics”? Certainly there are those that were misled, and there are those that would have been persuaded by falsehoods, but by no means can we paint Brexit as solely the consequence of post-truth politics. It is, for example, undoubtedly true that the European Union has adopted and pursued an extensive and damaging economic agenda across the continent. Casting an eye towards Greece is enough to underline the extent to which the EU is hardly a benign, friendly force for good. Economically speaking it is highly destructive. This is certainly a truth for those on the receiving end of the economic brutality. And a truth that is felt by the working class across the continent, those who do not feel the economic benefits so many of us take for granted (can anyone seriously argue that the working class in Greece have benefitted from the EU’s interventions?).

In this respect I was what might be described as a “reluctant remainer”. For me, if it was purely down to the economics of the European Union, I would have voted out. No-one who cares about the poorest in society could possibly consider the anti-democratic and destructive economic policies of the EU and believe that these are things that should be embraced. But then there are the social aspects. I am pro-immigration (indeed, I’m pro-“no borders”), and for me a vote to leave would have had disastrous implications for not only immigrants at home (which given the rise in racism seems to have very much come to pass), but would have given a powerful shot in the arm for far-right movements across Europe (who wasted no time in celebrating Brexit). That I could not countenance. And it was for that reason I voted to Remain. But, there were strong and powerful reasons to Leave, and they were not about “post-truth politics”, but a deeper truth about the reality of how the EU operates.

In terms of how this fits in with our work, would we make much difference here? Certainly, I think librarians clearly have a key role to play in terms of information literacy. We should be out there presenting the facts and working to ensure greater democratic engagement. And when I say “we should be out there” I mean we should be active, we should not just be waiting for folk to come to us in our libraries or institutions, we should be going out to them. Actively engaging wherever possible, working with communities, helping them to make sense of the huge volume of misinformation that proliferates during any political campaign.

But I don’t think better critical thinking amongst voters would necessarily have made a difference in terms of events such as Brexit. Yes there was inaccurate information from the Leave campaign that appears to have persuaded some to vote to leave, but would it have been any different if people were better equipped to assess the information provided? If you see the economic consequences of the EU in the Mediterranean, would you have been none the less persuaded to vote to Remain if you knew that not only were we not spending £350m per week on the EU that could have been spent on the EU, but that Turkey is unlikely to join any time soon and that we would have to join an EU army? Or would these truths make no difference whatsoever? Would the truth of the economic conditions enforced by the EU outweigh such “truths”? Or would the evident democratic deficit? And there are, of course, the racists and xenophobes who will take a racist position and disregard any “truths” that they are confronted with.

“People have had enough of experts,” said Michael Gove. I think we need to hear the voices of experts now more than ever. One look at the state of our media underlines how little the experts are heard, dominated as they are by commentators who pontificate on what they “reckon”. But experts and professionals can’t change realities or affect the lived experience of others. An individual critically analysing information in the run-up to the referendum could just as easily have voted to leave as voted to remain. Criticality and information literacy are not panaceas, but they help shine a light that can be shone into the darkest corners. Ultimately, it is not truth alone that will determine voting intentions, but how heavy that truth weighs.

Theresa May, The Opposition and the threat to librarianship

Mass surveillance is a serious threat to the ethical principles of librarianship and the communities we serve. (Image c/o Thomas Hawk on Flickr.)

Despite not being a member of the professional body, one of my current favourite documents (there’s a series of words you don’t often see next to each other) is CILIP’s Ethical Principles for Library and Information Professionals (bear with me). Two elements particularly stick out for me and have become key elements of the presentations I have been delivering lately (and will deliver in the future):

3. Commitment to the defence, and the advancement, of access to information, ideas and works of the imagination.

8. Respect for confidentiality and privacy in dealing with information users.

The post-Snowden era has resulted in a very clear and serious threat to these ethical principles. Indeed, I would argue that we have largely failed in this regard following the introduction of internet access in our libraries (in whatever form the library takes). Under conditions of mass surveillance it is clear: we cannot defend access to information and we cannot ensure the privacy of our users without providing the tools to ensure online privacy – whether that be through the availability of privacy enhancing tech in libraries or through working with users to provide them with the skills and knowledge with which to do so.

The current lay of the land politically suggests that this problem is not about to go away, it is actually going to get much worse. The elevation of Theresa May (presented as a kind of softer One Nation Tory – see here for more on One Nation Conservatism) certainly suggests that the threats we face to our ethical principles are not about to be brushed away, but instead become more pressing. We know that May has a particularly strident approach to mass surveillance, not for nothing was May named “internet villain of the year” at last year’s Annual UK Internet Industry Awards. It seems highly unlikely that upon becoming Prime Minister, May will suddenly abandon a long-held belief in mass surveillance, a policy that is a very serious threat to our ethical principles as outlined by CILIP. The question is, how will we as a profession tackle this threat.

The signs from the forming of Theresa May’s new cabinet are already pretty clear that the pursuit of mass surveillance legislation is very much still on the agenda. Her appointment of Boris Johnson as Foreign Secretary reinforces this threat. As Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson will also head up both GCHQ and MI6. Johnson has been an outspoken supporter of May’s drive towards enshrining mass surveillance into law. Only last year he declared in relation to the Snooper’s Charter:

“You’ve got to have a very tough security solution, you’ve got to be absolutely determined to monitor these people. You’ve got to know where they are and who they are talking to.

“I’m not particularly interested in all this civil liberties stuff when it comes to these people’s emails and mobile phone conversations. If they’re a threat to our society then I want them properly listened to.”

I’m not particularly interested in all this civil liberties stuff. And if we are in any doubt that his words match his actions, a quick look at his voting record suggests that he is very firmly pro a strategy of mass surveillance.

As for Theresa May’s replacement, well, I think it will come as no surprise to learn that Amber Rudd is also supportive of the rush to mass surveillance. Generally speaking, where she has turned up to vote, Rudd has generally voted for the “mass retention of information about communications” (or “mass surveillance” if we are to avoid euphemisms). So, both of the key main positions related to the introduction of mass surveillance legislation are very much in the “pro” camp. There is no doubt whatsoever that the government is shaping up to pose very serious threats to our ethical principles, as has been standard practice on the right for some time, ethics are simply a barrier to “progress”. It’s of little surprise to learn that our ethical principles continue to be threatened by a right-wing government, it’s what they do.

But what of the Opposition? Well, it’s not that much better. However, the current attempted coup against Corbyn could result in a unified threat to the ethical principles outlined. Whilst there is not conformity across the Labour Party on this issue (ha), Corbyn at least seems a bit more sceptical of mass surveillance than many of his colleagues. He at least voted to reject the Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Act in 2014 for example. What of the plotters in his party though?

Angela Eagle appears to offer little in the way of opposition in the threat against our ethical principles. Generally speaking, she has voted in favour of the mass retention of information about communications. And what of the other challenger, Owen Smith? Well, Smith has voted consistently in favour of mass retention of information about communications. So, should the coup be successful then it seems pretty clear that both sides of the house will be united in the belief that mass surveillance of the population is necessary. Of course, given the lack of party discipline at present, they will be effectively united even if Corbyn remains as leader because he is unable to command so many of his colleagues. There are really only two options I can see in terms of serious opposition to mass surveillance, the party respecting the wishes of the members and uniting around Corbyn, or mass deselection. Otherwise, mass surveillance is a foregone conclusion and CILIP will need to re-write their core ethical principles – because they will be worthless.

(I feel I should add here by way of caveat…I am not a Labour voter. Nor am I a Labour Party member. I’m not sure Corbyn is the right person to take the Labour Party forward, but I do think his politics are right for the future of the Labour Party. Corbyn may not be the right leader, but he holds the “right” politics. Unfortunately for those seeking to unseat Corbyn, they think both his leadership and his politics are wrong. I think this is a strategic error that will likely end the Labour Party for good. For me, a return to the gentrification of the party to ensure its appeal to the middle class will ensure its final demise in a climate where the working class have been hammered hard. But the fight for the party is not my fight, I am merely an observer.)

Whatever the future holds in this uncertain time, I’d recommend that all information professionals take a good look at those ethical principles and ask the question as to whether they are currently holding true to them. I’d also argue that we need to raise awareness of encryption technologies across the profession and beyond (taking the lead from key figures associated with the Radical Librarians Collective), particularly if we hold that our ethics are worth defending and advancing. We particularly need to be aware of what encryption tools will be effective and which will not, given the proposed legislation heading our way. I hope that CILIP batters the doors of government every single day brandishing those key ethical principles and fights for our profession and the communities we serve. These principles are under serious threat, by both sides, and for the sake of our existence and the sake of the people and communities we support, we must not allow them to become redundant.

Useful Links

Library Freedom Project

Open Rights Group

Privacy International