Information Literacy, Privacy, & Risk: What Are the Implications of Mass Surveillance for Libraries?

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Published on March 4, 2014

Author: g8briel



In light of new revelations about government warrantless wiretapping and electronic surveillance what role do librarians have in educating our patrons about digital privacy and security issues? Given that digital privacy is further complicated by for-profit Internet companies services, such as those provided by Facebook and Google, are our users savvy enough to understand threats to their information in this increasingly complex digital landscape? This presentation will explore issues related to current events and information security with an eye towards the implications for information literacy standards; brief examination of tools used to enhance information privacy; and discuss how librarians might play a role in helping users become more information aware.

Online Northwest, 2014 Information Literacy, Privacy, & Risk { What Are the Implications of Mass Surveillance for Libraries?

Outline  Framing questions  Implications for information literacy  Overview of recent revelations about NSA and other data collection  Tools & Advocacy (what can we do about it)  Questions This presentation is for educational purposes only – this is NOT legal advice

Framing questions  When it comes to modern technology, does the public have the necessary skills and literacies to effectively manage their information?

Framing questions  If digital privacy, security, and risks are information literacy issues, who should be teaching these skills and how?

Framing questions  What is the role of the librarian? Should we take more steps to support our patrons in developing a better understanding of how to manage their information?

Info lit standards ACRL standards currently distinguishes between information literacy and information technology fluency, while acknowledging an overlap between the two:  ‚Information literacy initiates, sustains, and extends lifelong learning through abilities which may use technologies but are ultimately independent of them.‛

Info lit standards Standard 5: ‚The information literate student understands many of the economic, legal, and social issues surrounding the use of information and accesses and uses information ethically and legally.‛ The first learning outcome for the standard: ‚Identifies and discusses issues related to privacy and security in both the print and electronic environments‛

Recent Revelations: { Government and Corporate Surveillance

"It's now a matter of public record that the NSA collects and stores the calling records of domestic phone calls, tracks the location of millions of mobile devices worldwide, infiltrates the data links between the data centers of tech companies used by millions of Americans, piggybacks onto commercial tracking mechanisms, collected potentially sensitive online metadata for years and actively worked to undermine the privacy and security measures that underpin the Internet. And considering the purported size of the Snowden cache, that could be the tip of the metaphorical iceberg."

‚On its website, the NSA presents its vision of how it wants to manage information: the Global Information Grid. More of a concept than an actual technical plan, the GIG is a "net-centric system operating in a global context to provide processing, storage, management, and transport of information.‛‛

"Getting the data has always been easier than making sense of it. So the NSA developed its own tools to tap the vast pools of information. In 2008, agency engineers created Accumulo, a data storage and retrieval system based on Google's Big Table system. Sqrrl Data, a start-up company in Cambridge, Mass., this month began a commercial version of Accumulo for realtime data mining. Most of the founders of Sqrrl Data are former NSA employees. Accumulo allowed the NSA to examine disparate data sets and find connections, said a former NSA operator who worked with it.‛

Ingest "With assistance from private communications firms, the NSA had learned to capture enormous flows of data at the speed of light from fiber-optic cables that carried Internet and telephone traffic over continents and under seas. According to one document in Snowden’s cache, the agency’s Special Source Operations group, which as early as 2006 was said to be ingesting ‚one Library of Congress every 14.4 seconds‛

Ingest "The alleged surveillance may be conducted through third party advertising networks used by millions of commercial web sites and mobile applications across all industries. If advertising networks are indeed targeted, it would appear that no internet-enabled device that visits ad-enabled websites or uses ad-enabled applications is immune to such surveillance."

Secure/Index? ‚once they obtain the information, they process it ... it goes through these various processes and then ends up in the database, where it can be retrieved later.‛

Query ‚According to the NSA’s director of compliance, the agency queries its databases about 20 million times each month‚ (at 6) ‚In the process, information has been folded into a ‚Threat Matrix,‛ an itemized catalogue of all the ‚threats‛— or more accurately ‚leads‛— needing to be followed up. As Garrett Graff explains, the government pursues ‚upwards of 5,000 threats per day.‛‛ (at 10)

‚Explains Walter Pincus, if operatives at NSA, sorting through their 215 metadata collection or other sources, uncover ‚a questionable pattern‛ such as ‚calls to other suspect phones,‛ they send a report to the FBI for investigation. In NSA this process has sometimes been called ‚We Track ‘Em, You Whack ‘Em.‛ The FBI, then, is routinely supplied with what Graff calls ‚endless lists of ‘suspect’ telephone numbers.‛ When followed up, these ‚leads‛ virtually never go anywhere: of 5000 numbers passed along, only 10—two-tenths of one percent—‚panned out enough for the bureau to bother‛ to get court permission to follow them up. At the FBI, the NSA tips are often called “Pizza Hut” leads because, following them up, FBI agents ‚inevitably end up investigating the local pizza delivery guy.‛ There is, in other words, nothing to ‚whack.‛ At one point, the generally diplomatic Robert Mueller bluntly told NSA director Alexander, ‚You act like this is some treasure trove; it’s a useless time suck.‛‛ (at 13)

Why Ingest, Secure, Index & Query? "Multiple databases consolidated and cross–referenced, with incidental details linking previously disconnected bodies of information, produce a far more significant whole than any one part would suggest: identities, tendencies, groups and patterns with both historically revelatory and predictive power"

Historical Trends ‚In Uncharted, Erez Aiden and Jean-Baptiste Michel tell the story of how they tapped into this sea of information to create a new kind of telescope: a tool that, instead of uncovering the motions of distant stars, charts trends in human history across the centuries. By teaming up with Google, they were able to analyze the text of millions of books. The result was a new field of research and a scientific tool, the Google Ngram Viewer‛

Predictive Power "The company is continuing to try to learn more about individual users so that it can provide personalized services such as Google Now, which tries to provide information to people before they even search for it, such as alerting them to traffic updates before their scheduled meetings." "As a general theme we’re trying to move beyond just searching to actually knowing about things. We think this is essential because we want to understand what you’re trying to do and give you some help. Google Now is an example of a product that is trying to figure out the state that you’re in and make a suggestion to you."

‚If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place‛ - Google CEO Eric Schmidt

‚U.S. agencies collected and shared the personal information of thousands of Americans in an attempt to root out untrustworthy federal workers that ended up scrutinizing people who had no direct ties to the U.S. government and simply had purchased certain books.‛

What can we do?  "I live in a world where using my own name on github and IRC was a specific conscious choice that required actual bravery from me, because I know that I am statistically exposing myself to retribution for doing so.‚  "Let’s say that again: I live in a world where being myself in public, talking about things I care about under my own name in public, is a specific choice which requires both courage and a backup plan.‚  ‚by clarifying the threats, by publicly affirming the decency of the bystanders, we create a world where you don’t have to be quite so brave to speak up."

What can we do?  Advocate and educate    At our libraries, in our communities, and as a profession Feb 11, EFF & ACLU  Find opportunities to address the issues in instruction  Help patrons think through their personal threat model

Tools  Be vigilant about info use on the tools we provide  Tor Browser:  Ghostery:  More at

Back to the questions  In light of the NSA revelations, are our patrons’ information literacy skills sufficient to ensure privacy?  If not, how do we educate the public on these issues?  What is the role of the librarian?

Thanks!  Gabe: @gabe_gossett,  Rebecca:  Brian: @davidsoneducate Research materials available at This presentation is for educational purposes only – this is NOT legal advice

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