Alison Macrina had bad news for the 30 or so librarians in the darkened auditorium on a recent Friday. “Your password is bad,” she informed them. “I’m really sorry. Everything you’ve learned about passwords is wrong. It’s not your fault.”
Macrina was nearly an hour into a presentation on digital privacy. She and her colleagues had covered encrypted browsers, tracking, mobile security, surveillance laws, and what to do if federal agents show up with a letter from the government demanding library records. Many of the librarians were bent over their notebooks, scribbling frantically as Macrina whipped through her slides.
Macrina, 30, is not your grandmother’s librarian. She has a kaleidoscopic illustration from a Mother Goose book tattooed on her arm, occasionally poses for selfies in red lipstick, and wears a small piece of hardware called a security token around her neck like a pendant. Macrina has worked as a public librarian for nearly a decade, but she’s not shelving books; she’s fighting Big Brother.
“Like a lot of other librarians, I started thinking about privacy a lot more acutely, I think, right after Snowden,” she told me. “I didn’t know just how much privacy was being violated, and what we weren’t doing to address it.” The American Library Association has counted privacy among its “core values” since 1939, but Macrina thinks that now, in the age of dragnet data collection by intelligence agencies and corporations, librarians aren’t taking enough concrete steps to protect their patrons, in many cases because they don’t have the technical skills.
Under the Patriot Act, the government can demand library records via a secret court order and without probable cause that the information is related to a suspected terrorist plot. It can also block the librarian from revealing that request to anyone. Nor does the term “records” cover only the books you check out; it also includes search histories and hard drives from library computers. The Muslim-American who uses a library computer to correspond with family abroad, or the activist planning a demonstration against police brutality—those digital trails are vulnerable to surveillance, along with everyone else’s.
The government’s power to vacuum up our personal details seems unstoppable, but a lot of it depends on how much we give away. Macrina wants librarians and library users to be less complicit. She installed privacy-protection tools on computers at the library where she worked in Watertown, Massachusetts, and started teaching classes on digital privacy to patrons. Soon, she was leading workshops throughout New England, working with the American Civil Liberties Union to explain how the government collects data and about the various tools that librarians can use to protect their patrons. They started calling their partnership the Library Freedom Project, and in January they won a Knight Foundation grant to scale up the program.