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Iron & Glass

Digital Privacy: Confessions of an Inconsistent Privacy Practitioner

by Pratt Institute Archives on 2020-10-02T13:37:00-04:00 in Information Literacy, Information Science | Comments

Post contributed by Sydni Meyer, Libraries Graduate Assistant and MS candidate, Library and Information Science.

While I am still clumsily adjusting to the digital work environment six months on, I distinctly remember peeling the smiley face sticker off my laptop’s webcam in preparation for my first Zoom class. I started covering my webcam after reading about a lawsuit in Pennsylvania where a theft-protection software on school-issued laptops accessed webcams every 15 minutes, snapping thousands of photos of unwitting high schoolers. The sticker was a milestone in my digital privacy practice; my first low-tech solution to high-tech problems. Hurriedly typing essays into the night, the smiley face had been a beacon, grinning back with unconditional validation and acting as a reminder that even I could be vigilant against unwanted surveillance. 


As my classes and Public Services Graduate Assistant position at the Reference desk moved online, my webcam became my portal to the outside world. Classmates, coworkers, and even library patrons on reference chat could now Zoom into my apartment (yes, you too can request a video chat with a librarian!), making me self-conscious of my interior design decisions and utterly mortified by my active listening face.

Self portrait in the matrix, 2020.

Despite missing Pratt’s Brooklyn library, digital offerings seemed to bloom simultaneously with the late March landscape. Databases Pratt didn’t have access to were suddenly available, and the Free E-Resources page was ever-growing. It was comforting that even amid catastrophe, libraries find a way.

When not attempting to do school work, doom scrolling, or working behind the Ask a Librarian digital curtain, I found solace perusing ArtStor’s expanded offerings. There was something darkly reassuring about Pandemics and Epidemics collection, full of images of people coping with other health crises, including the image below of a comically overprepared 19th-century German man trying to keep the cholera epidemic at bay.

Wender, Benedikt Johann. “A Man Barricades Himself…” Etching, 1832. Barricaded against the cholera epidemic with every rumored cure, this guy proves that even before the internet, wading through information and choosing what to act on has never been an easy task.

With all these new resources and digital tools came new privacy concerns. Why did Zoom need access to all of my photos? Not a concern I could ponder for too long while somehow running late to a Zoom class. Fears of my exploratory ramblings in class getting recorded (and maybe circulating on the internet one day) lead me to be a bit less talkative, feeling the need to protect whatever reputation I may eventually build. Each new database had new privacy policies and terms of service. People may know these policies as the thing you hurriedly scroll through to find the “Accept” button, just wanting your content ASAP. Pro-tip: for the similarly hurried reader, the E-Resources team has put together a helpful, continuously updating guide to the privacy policies of databases at Pratt.

Please database, may I have some reading materials?!

In many ways, my haste to gloss over privacy policies for the sake of expediency exemplifies the privacy paradox explored by Pratt Information School Professor Monica Maceli. I can abstractly discuss the ways data can be monetized or compromised, and I know of a few tools to protect my privacy, but my actions are not consistent with my knowledge set. Whenever a huge data breach gets revealed - like the 2017 Equifax breach or the Ashley Madison hack of 2015 - I reflect on what I could do better, how many other smiley face stickers I need. Being a privacy resource is one of the reasons I want to be a librarian. Despite librarians' valiant efforts to push back against surveillance in the library, libraries still work with digital tools that collect user data. To protect patrons from more legally consequential forms of data mining - like ICE and law enforcement surveillance of legal databases Westlaw and Lexis Nexis - patrons need to be aware of potential privacy threats and develop a privacy tool kit to protect themselves. Organizations like the Library Freedom Project provide ample educational resources for librarians to help us explain Tor Browsers, VPNs, encryption technologies, and privacy apps. And yet I sometimes find myself like the German cholera warrior; barricaded by my myriad privacy apps, yet somehow still ineffectual. Heavy is the head that wears the tinfoil hat.

Kruger, Barbara. “Untitled (Surveillance is Your Busywork).” 1983, Pratt Institute Collection.

Some of this can be chalked up to user error, and to err is human. Despite understanding the risks, I still use Google products for ease; in the last few months, I have had to remember more unique passwords than ever before, and Google stores these passwords for me. Sometimes my virtual private network (VPN) will interrupt service when I am trying to access library resources, and I forget to reconnect the VPN when I’m off the library website. If the internet is like a highway, then a virtual private network is like a secret tunnel. You access the VPN tunnel through your internet service provider (ISP), but once you're in the VPN tunnel, your browsing is encrypted and your ISP can’t surveil or potentially sell your browsing history and locational data. And despite early precautions at protests this summer - leaving my phone at home, using airplane mode, and other digital safety strategies - I started using non-encrypted chat platforms as time wore on, prioritizing speed and access over best practices.

Of course, inconsistent individual practices are not solely to blame for privacy issues. Data does not just grow legs and shuffle off to some data detention hall for people with errant privacy practices: someone has to be watching it. As long as data is monetized and legally consequential, advancements in privacy technologies will be met with new laws that regulate the use of these technologies. In May of this year, members of the House of Representatives proposed HR 6172, a reauthorization of parts of the Patriot Act with an additional provision that allows law enforcement agencies warrantless access to web browser histories. While it’s unclear how built-in privacy measures in web browsers could effectively protect against this new proposal, the bill illustrates that best privacy practices are subject to change pending evolving surveillance practices. 

For more on this bill and building a privacy tool kit, check out the Internet and Data Privacy Guide I worked on this summer. If you are interested in seeing me and my tin foil hat in all its inconsistent glory, I will be speaking on the October 7th library panel “Privacy Versus Free Speech Online” with Monica Maceli and Sarah Lamdan, a Law professor specializing in government information access at the CUNY School of Law.


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