Image adapted from an original by Matt Biddulph on Flickr (filter + tilt shift). CC-BY-SA
The following is a shorter version of the article The Digital Divide in the Post-Snowden Era, published in the Journal of Radical Librarianship, and was published in the Multimedia Information & Technology journal (volume 42, issue 1, February 2016). My thanks to Catherine Dhanjal for permitting me to re-post the article here.
Back in 2004, the Chartered Institute for Library and Information Professionals (CILIP) published their Ethical principles for library and information professionals. Amongst many of its principles was the commitment to “the defence, and the advancement, of access to information, ideas and works of the imagination” (CILIP 2012). This followed its endorsement, in 2000, of the Council of Europe’s declaration that users should be able to “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” (Council of Europe 2000). Privacy of the information the user has accessed is paramount and the profession must do what it can to ensure that such access is not impeded. But do our stated ethical beliefs and our desire to commit to access to information and ideas stand up to scrutiny in the modern era?
The disclosures by Edward Snowden in 2013 have had a significant impact upon the way we view the internet. Rather than a tool that facilitates freedom of expression and creation, it has increasingly emerged as a tool enabling extensive state surveillance and the control and management of individuals. It was clear, as if there was ever any doubt, that our activities online were monitored by governments, including data collected by large corporations (Greenwald et al, 2013; Leopold, 2014; MacAskill, 2013).
The history of surveillance
Discussions around surveillance are often linked to Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon prison design. Bentham was influence by his brother on his return from Russia to design a prison with cells arranged around an outer wall with an observation tower in the centre (Foucault 1977). The design enabled the guards to be able to look into any of the cells at any one time, whilst the prisoners were unable to view the guards. Michel Foucault, in his work Discipline and Punish argued that the consequence of Bentham’s Panopticon was the “automatic functioning of power” – that is that the prisoners were disciplined without the need for any action to be taken against them (Foucault 1977). There was no need for the guards to exercise power as the prisoners were managed by the belief that they could be seen. This “management” aspect of surveillance is also picked up by David Lyon, a respected figure in the surveillance studies community, who defines surveillance as the “focused, systematic and routine attention to personal details for purposes of influence, management, protection or direction” (Lyon 2007).
Of course, state surveillance is nothing new. Governments have always sought to engage in varying degrees of surveillance in order to minimise “threats”. In 1913 for example, the UK government ordered that photographs be taken of all known suffragette prisoners in order to limit their activities upon release (Casciani 2003). In 1967, the President of the United States ordered for the surveillance of domestic dissident groups in the wake of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr (Richards 2013). However, surveillance hasn’t been pursued as a strategy by the state without hesitation. In the same year as the President ordered surveillance of domestic dissident groups following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr, the President’s Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice warned:
“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.” (President’s Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice 1967)
As Lyon and Foucault had observed, the use of surveillance as a tool manages and influences individuals. This may influence individuals not to threaten the state or fellow citizens, or it might inhibit their willingness to explore ideas and act as critical members of society.
Surveillance and democracy
The ability to seek out information freely and without impediment is crucial in a democratic society and as librarians we have a key role in providing that space to enable intellectual enquiry. As Zygmunt Bauman, another key figure in the study of surveillance, observes:
“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.” (2001: 55)
To enable those complaints and critiques that mark out a society as democratic, individuals must be given the space to explore and seek out new ideas. If that space for intellectual inquiry is not available, then individuals are not able to engage in the democratic process. As librarians with an ethical duty to ensure individuals can access information privately, accepting the right to do so confidentially, we clearly have a duty to provide such a space.
Online encryption technologies are crucial in ensuring such a space is available for individuals to both seek out information and to communicate with others. Unfortunately, much of the political establishment in the United States and the UK are hostile to the use of such technologies. Shortly after the terrorist attacks in Paris last year, the head of the CIA, John Brennan, argued that this served as a warning about the danger of allowing encryption technologies to exist (Brennan et al. 2015). The fact that there was no evidence of the use of such technologies didn’t appear to be factored into his criticisms (O’Neill 2016). Furthermore, there have been those that have argued that Snowden’s revelations have heightened awareness of online encryption technologies amongst terrorists. Once more, however, experts on the so-called “Dark Web” have found that no such evidence of an upsurge in usage of such technologies has occurred (Flashpoint Partners 2014).
The UK government appears to be particularly keen on limiting the availability of private spaces online. Both the Karma Police and Tempora programs have led to the mass collection of data (Shubber 2013; Gallagher 2015). David Cameron has been particularly hostile to the use of encryption technologies, arguing that there should be no means of communication that the government cannot access. Furthermore, the requirement of the Draft Investigatory Powers Bill underline the extent to which people’s online activity will be exposed to interrogation by the state. As for encryption technologies, the Prime Minister has made it clear that, as far as he is concerned, no communications between individuals should be conducted in private (Temperton 2015).
This raises important questions for us. If we are to accept that the privacy of our users must be respected and that “knowledge of what they have accessed or wish to access” should be treated confidentially, how does this sit with the desire of the state to obtain information about the information we are seeking out and our communications? Does the collection of such data in our libraries, on our library computers, not contravene our commitment to maintain the privacy of our users? If so, how do we tackle this?
As with all other aspects of technology, one cannot expect individuals to both know how to use encryption technologies and understand which tools are appropriate to use. Encryption technologies are not necessarily easy to use and without the knowledge of which tools to use, individuals will not be in a position to protect themselves. Those with social (a network of skilled support), economic (the means to purchase equipment) and cultural capital (ability to invest time to improve skills) are at significant advantage. Given that this enables a degree of democratic engagement (to freely explore ideas and critique the status quo) that those without cannot achieve, there are clearly implications for the state of our democracy. If only those with capital are able to explore, to engage and to critique, then the democratic system will be skewed in their favour. Those that do not have the ability to engage and critique democracy freely and without impediment will therefore be excluded from the democratic process.
The current state of the digital divide indicates the extent to which support is needed to ensure that citizens can seek and obtain information freely and securely, without fear of a breach of their intellectual privacy. The Office for National Statistics (ONS), for example, identifies the extent to which skills and cost are impediments to people getting online. According to the latest data, 31% of those that have never been online say the reason they have never been online is a lack of skills, whereas 14% say cost of equipment and 12% access costs are why they have never been online. It is particularly stark for the most disadvantaged in society (Office for National Statistics 2015). Of those that lack the basic skills, 69% are from the C2DE social group (BBC Learning 2014).
This raises serious concerns in terms of democracy. Those with the skills to use the internet effectively, to utilise more advanced tools such as encryption technologies and to protect their internet activity from state or corporate eyes, will be better equipped to “think and act constructively”, to gather the information they require to critique institutions and the political system. Those who lack that ability, who don’t have the skills to use the internet to the fullest extent, will find themselves exposed to state and corporate surveillance, limiting their ability to conduct intellectual enquiry and putting themselves at risk. Given the ethical position taken by CILIP and IFLA, it is incumbent on us as information professionals to level that playing field and ensure that it is not only the most privileged in our society that can securely and privately seek out information that challenges the status quo.
Librarians and surveillance
In the United States there have already been moves to challenge this inequity. The efforts of Alison Macrina and the Library Freedom Project in particular have been key to tackling the inequality of online privacy (Burns 2015). Training members of the public and helping to establish the use of tools such as the Tor Browser (a browser that provides the user with a high degree of privacy when online) in a public library, Macrina’s Library Freedom Project has highlighted the need for library and information professionals to help ensure that citizens can access information confidentially (Doyle-Burr 2015). These efforts have been picked up by both the American Library Association (ALA) and the International Federation of Library Associations (IFLA) who have both engaged in greater efforts to raise awareness of online privacy and encryption technologies (ALA Office for Intellectual Freedom 2015; IFLA 2015).
To date no comparable activities have taken place in UK libraries to protect intellectual privacy. Indeed, in terms of public libraries, recent moves to encourage private sector support to develop online skills have made such efforts less likely to take place. The Barclays Digital Eagles scheme, for example, has a heavy emphasis on encouraging individuals to use commercial products such as Google and other popular online tools that do not offer the privacy and security of tools such as Tor (for browsing), DuckDuckGo (for searching) and Signal or an email service that uses the OpenPGP (Pretty Good Privacy) standard (communications) (Barclays 2015). The side effect of encouraging such software is that signing individuals up for a Google account then directing them to the Barclays website leads to the increased likelihood of being served Barclays’ ads direct to the user’s inbox (Google 2015).
The question is, is it possible for UK libraries and librarians to replicate the work of the Library Freedom Project? It is undoubtedly more difficult in the UK to pursue such actions. Unlike the United States, we do not have a strong cultural sense of the importance of freedom of expression. Whereas the US enshrines such values in its constitution by way of the First Amendment, there is no such equivalent in the UK. Whilst the First Amendment does not open doors unconditionally, it is a lever by which pressure can be applied – and one that librarians have successfully utilised in the past (Pollack 2006). Furthermore, whilst the Federal government provides funding, it doesn’t superintend library services as the British government does (CILIP 2013). A government hostile to privacy technologies (as stated by the Prime Minister) is unlikely to allow a service that it oversees to provide online security training that contravenes its wish to limit the use of such technologies. However, this should not limit the use of tools such as DuckDuckGo, which provides greater security of an individual’s internet search history, or the use of ad blockers and other such privacy enhancing tools. Furthermore, whilst libraries that are superintended by the government may find it difficult to teach the necessary skills to protect intellectual privacy, those that aren’t subject to state oversight may find there is scope to support the intellectual privacy of individuals. Libraries independent of state oversight may find that there is potential to raise awareness of encryption technologies and provide support in their use.
Although the encouragement of the use of tools that protect intellectual privacy will not be easy in an environment where there is outright hostility from the state, we do need to recognise that the protection of intellectual privacy is fundamental to the ethical framework in which we work. It is, therefore, essential to seek and identify ways in which we can hold true to our commitment to ensure the intellectual privacy of our users. There are steps that we can take now to ensure this, and there are others that will need us as a profession to come together to find ways to make happen. What we can surely all agree on, is that individuals must be free to seek out information, to inform and educate themselves, freely and without impediment. The challenge for us is to ensure that we enable this right to the fullest possible extent.
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