Crypto Party…in a public library…in the UK

Newcastle Central Library (CC-BY).

Well, this is a turn up for the books. When I wrote my recent article on Snowden and the digital divide I made a few limited recommendations (in hindsight I could have been more extensive in this regard). Having worked in public libraries myself, I was somewhat hesitant to recommend that all public libraries install Tor Browser as the default – I knew (or at least had a very strong suspicion based on working in public libraries) it just simply wasn’t going to happen (in terms of my local library authority, I’ve pretty much had this confirmed). Instead, I kinda vaguely pushed that we as a profession should learn some of the skills and, however possible, share them with our communities (I’ve vaguely started on this road, but I’ve been less than great at doing so). There would be nothing wrong with hosting workshops, even if the tech cannot be the default on the council computers. It’s clear to me there’s an intellectual privacy divide – between those that are able to ensure digital privacy, and those that cannot due to lack of skills, knowledge etc. Libraries, for me, should play a role in bridging this gap. The protection of intellectual privacy is, after all, a core principle underpinning the profession.

I was, therefore, both pleased and surprised to see that Newcastle libraries are working with the Open Rights Group (North East) to run a Crypto Party later this month – the first public library service I am aware of to officially run and deliver one in the UK (if you know of an official library organised event that is comparable, please let me know!). According to the details on, they intend on covering:

  • Safe browsing
  • Tor Browser & TAILS
  • Signal
  • Full Disk Encryption
  • PGP

A cursory glance at the website looks promising…the Newcastle library service seem to be giving it a bit of a promotional push as well. It will be interesting to hear how this develops and whether other library services take Newcastle’s lead and teach privacy enhancing tools. It’s something I think we should be doing much more of, rather than leaving the teaching of digital skills to private companies with a vested interest in promoting certain tools and approaches to online engagement. Hopefully others will follow Newcastle’s lead….

Why are Barclays in our libraries?

In many respects, having a pop at the banks is a bit of a case of “low hanging fruit”…but in the case of Barclays and their supposed altruistic effort to boost the digital skills of the nation, sometimes that low hanging fruit is too tempting to ignore. And when that fruit is also a fruit that compromises the library service and the profession to which I belong, then that fruit needs picking and crushing. I think I may have hit a metaphorical dead end, so let’s move on – what exactly is my beef?

Concerns have been raised about the relationship between public libraries (which don’t have a profit motive because they provide a social good) and Barclays (which does have a profit motive and, well, social good…hmm) for some time now. The main cause for concern? The invasion of a public space by a corporate entity providing a service traditionally delivered by library staff (in one form or another). Of course, once a corporate entity (driven by profit) enters a public space, that public space has been corrupted. It’s no longer a public space, but an “opportunity” for corporate enterprises to exploit (because they are driven by profit and are answerable to shareholders). The decision, therefore, to allow Barclays to use a public space to “help” the community seemed a little bit out of kilter with what we would ordinarily expert in the delivery of public library services.

What do Barclays actually do?

Well, I’ll hold my hands up and say I’ve not experienced it first hand, so all I have to go on is whatever information is in the public domain. A quick glance of their website gives a fair indication of the kind of support they provide. For example, they help people set up email accounts. Great. Email is a great way to connect people at great distance, particularly useful for those who have relatives far afield and are unable to visit. So what email services to they advise? Well, this is hardly going to come as a surprise: Google, Yahoo! and Microsoft. Brilliant. All of which rely on, you guessed it, advertising (and have generally not been too great when it comes to privacy see here, here and here – the last one is really interesting, check it out…then never ever use Outlook for personal email). And the way the advertising works is particularly interesting…

On their website, Google explain how ads are delivered to your inbox:

We are always looking for more ways to deliver you the most useful and relevant ads – for example, we may use your Google search queries on the Web, the sites you visit, Google Profile, +1’s and other Google Account information to show you more relevant ads in Gmail.

Handily, Barclays also have a load of useful resources on their website, including how to create an email account. Which handily seems to favour Google. So, get email guidance from Barclays, create a Google account, login, head to the Barclays website for more hints and tips and VOILA!, Barclays advertising direct to your inbox. Nice one Barclays. You’ve found a way to drive up online advertising direct to customers and potential customers without having to worry about a large advertising spend, all the while appearing as if you are simply trying to help people for no other reason than to provide a social good.

Of course, much of this is speculation given I’ve not actually experienced the delivery of their support. Maybe they never introduce them to the materials they have on their website. But it seems hard to believe that people would receive help from a Barclays Digital Eagle to create an email account then never visit the Barclays website ever again, or indeed manage to have help from a Barclays Digital Eagle without ever being aware that they also offer advice online. Can we seriously believe that they do not mention Barclays at all to library users? Or mention the fact that they are Digital Eagles? Do they really just sit in the library as a member of staff, never revealing anything at all about the company that employs them? Well, it seems that some library leaders believe that this is exactly the case…

Capitalism is neutral

Having a pootle around the Libraries Taskforce website (fascinating stuff, watch how many times they mention “business” in their various materials), I was interested to see an article by Nick Stopforth on the Barclays/public library initiative which was…er…interesting. Here’s his take on the partnership:

“These initiatives will not achieve their aims – to increase digital participation, skills and confidence – to best effect in isolation. We will see more people supported more effectively and with greater reach by working out new connections, new opportunities, and being entrepreneurial and opportunistic. Library services will have to be as customer focussed and facilitative as always, but also more corporate, and with appropriate risk management in place.”

Oh dear…

“To reassure stakeholders and customers who will understandably have a view that all off this sounds to be contrary to the ethos of library services to provide free and neutral public spaces, there is no hard sell (or even soft sell) from the Digital Inclusion Stakeholder partners in libraries.”

So they never once mention the materials on the Barclays website, never direct them there, never inform them of the support materials they provide, never mention that they are Digital Eagles (which may prompt an online search on one of their recommended search engines)? Never? At all? Not once? Ok…

So I think that we have a choice – our corporate partners could provide those free, neutral digital skills support hours in other venues, or they could provide the support in libraries.

“Neutral digital skills”? NEUTRAL. Let’s have a look at the services they recommend:

Email: Gmail, Yahoo!, Outlook.

Search engines: Google, Yahoo!

Setting up a community group: Facebook, Google, Yahoo!, social media.

Well, that all seems neutral. Recommending a series of services that monetise your data and help ensure targetted advertising. Surely if it was truly “neutral” you would also have things like Duck Duck Go for search engine, riseup for email, Tor for browsing, Crystal for ad blocking, Ghostery for tracking etc etc. Surely the recommendation of these services would be “neutral” (if we are to accept the premise that that is even a thing), not the promotion of services that, ultimately, lead to the delivery of advertising direct to the user? Encouraging the surrendering of personal data to a large corporation for profit is not by any stretch of the imagination “neutral”. Nor is it in the best interests of users. Encouraging them to give up their data to drive the profits of large corporations is not what we should be about. We should be about protecting their personal data, ensuring that they aren’t a cash cow but a citizen seeking information and communicating with others securely, ensuring the protection of their intellectual privacy.

The choice should not be “either they deliver those services in competition with us or we incorporate them”. The choice should be whether we seek to deliver a service that ensures people connect online and use the internet freely without surrendering their personal data or whether we just ask as a conduit for the profit motive of private enterprise (or “neutrality” as it now appears to be dubbed). The latter, for me, should never be central to the mission of the public library service. It’s saddening that we have allowed the supposed threats to our future force us to become a service geared to the benefit of large corporations, rather than asserting our confidence as a public service providing a common good.