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Tip of the Hat

22 November 2019

Filtering and Privacy: What Would You Do?


Welcome to this week’s Tip of the Hat!

You're working the information desk at the local college library. A student comes up to you, personal laptop in tow. They say that they can’t access many of the library databases they need for a class assignment. You ask them to show you what errors they are getting on their laptop when trying to visit one of the databases. The student opens their laptop and shows you the browser window. You see what appears to be a company logo and a message – "Covenant Eyes has blocked http://search.ebscohost.com. This page was blocked due to your current filter configuration.”

What’s going on?

Online filtering is not an unfamiliar topic to libraries. Some libraries filter library computers to receive funds from the E-rate program under the Children’s Internet Protection Act [CIPA]. Other libraries do not filter for many reasons, including that filters deny the right to privacy for teens and young adults. The American Library Association published a report about CIPA and libraries, noting that over filtering resources blocks access to legitimate educational resources, among many other resources used for educational and research purposes.

We're not dealing with a library computer in the scenario, though. An increasing number of libraries encounter filtering software on adult patrons’ personal computers. Sometimes these are college students using a laptop gifted by their parents. These computers come with online monitoring and filtering software, such as Covenant Eyes, for the parents to track and/or control the use of the computer by the student. Parents can set the filter to block certain sites as well as track what topics and sites the student is researching at the library. This monitoring of computer activity, including online activity, is in direct conflict with the patron’s right to privacy while using library resources, as well as the patron’s right to access library resources.

Going back to the opening scenario, what can the library do to help the patron maintain their privacy and access library resources? There are a few technical workarounds that the library and patron can explore. The EEF’s Surveillance Self-Defense Guide lists several ways to circumvent internet filtering or monitoring software. Depending on the comfort level of both library staff and patron, one workaround to explore is running the Tor browser from a USB drive, using the pluggable transports or bridges built into Tor as needed. This method allows the patron to use Tor without having to install the browser on the computer, which then would keep the monitoring software from keeping track of what sites the person is visiting. The other major workaround is to use a library computer or another computer, which while inconvenient for the patron, would be another way to protect the privacy of the patron while using library resources.

The above scenario is only one of many scenarios that libraries might face in working with patrons whose personal computers have tracking or filtering software. Tracking and filtering software on patron personal computers is a risk to patron privacy when patrons use those devices to use the library. It is a risk that the library can help mitigate through education and possible technical workarounds, nonetheless.

Now it’s your turn – how would your library handle the college student patron scenario described in the newsletter? Reply to this newsletter to share your library’s experiences with similar scenarios as well. LDH will de-identify the responses and share them in a future newsletter to help other libraries start formulating their procedures. You might also pick up a new procedure or two!

[Many thanks to our friends at the Library Freedom Project for the Tor information in today’s post!]

Have a question or topic that you want us to write about? Email us at newsletter@ldhconsultingservices.com!