DC Public Library Presents: Privacy 101

Ever want to browse the black market online? Or are you just interested in keeping your browsing history private from everyone? Then the DC Public Library’s 10-day series on government transparency and personal privacy is the place for you.

The series, cleverly titled “Orwellian America,” brings together a variety of documentary screenings, live readings, and workshops – all intended to inform the general public about their privacy (or lack thereof) in today’s digital age. Notable events include a seminar about accessing public government information, a live marathon reading of George Orwell’s 1984, and a lesson on using the Tor browser to protect your online privacy. All in all, it appears to be a thought-provoking program, particularly given the hacking and tracking we hear so much about on the news these days.

While the program’s content may not be entirely groundbreaking for a public library – a quick search reveals that the Denver public library holds a similar workshop – what does surprise me is the location. Right down the road from Congress and a few miles from the NSA, the DC library will teach people how to use a browser known mostly for its obscurity and its use for buying illegal goods.

Some people may criticize the program for teaching “bad” people to hide themselves from committing crimes online, and others may criticize the program for contributing to fear mongering and an unhealthy distrust of our government.* However, I think the most interesting issue this program reminds us to think about is: do we consider the Internet to be a public or private space? What should it be, and how should we expect to be treated within it?

In many ways, I believe that a large majority of people (myself included) treat their online access like a private terminal to outside information – the equivalent of being inside your own home and looking outside at interesting things, with the occasional “post” equivalent to inviting others inside to see a poster hanging on the wall. In this analogy, deleting information from your Facebook profile or Twitter feed seems like it should be permanent, equal to taking down that hanging poster so that no one can see it anymore. Unfortunately, we know that the Internet is written in pen, not pencil, and that the digital trail can sometimes never be erased.

What we also know through whistleblowers and leakers is that the U.S. government has been secretly compiling these digital trails, going as far to collect metadata not only for our Internet activity but also for our phone calls. If it already seemed unsettling for other people to be taking pictures and recording all of the posters we hang, then it is surely even more unsettling for our government to be doing the same without letting us know.

If the Internet is a private space, then it seems like all of this watching and recording is an invasion of our agreed privacy. But what if the Internet is a public space? What inherent level of privacy should we expect, and does the level of surveillance depend on what the government does with the information?

Frustratingly, it seems impossible to determine whether the U.S. government’s surveillance produces a net good or net bad. To do so would require comparing things like the lives saved from the thwarting of terrorist attacks with things like the lives crippled by false positives and a general lack of privacy (which I am assuming is a positive attribute that most people want). More frustratingly, maybe we should expect an inherent level of privacy no matter what, just like the way we expect public bathrooms to be free from surveillance cameras. Even then, we have the tough task of determining what (if anything) is the online equivalent to walking in to a toilet stall.

The DC Public Library’s “Orwellian America” reminds me that I know little about my online self and that I know even less about how to form expectations for online privacy in the grand scheme of things. Here is this public institution teaching people to stay more private from public surveillance on channels of questionable privacy in a network with ambiguous public/ private expectations. Confusing. In any case, the public library seems like an appropriate place to start doing some learning.

* Given that everything included in the program is already free and publicly available, you could easily argue that the library won’t be teaching you anything couldn’t already do in, say, a library. You could also argue that the public currently has an unhealthy trust in our government’s respect for our online privacy.