If you use the Internet or carry a smartphone — and let's face it, that's almost everyone who's not off the grid — you probably already know that companies are tracking our movements. Apps track where we shop, the items we search for, and where we like to travel. Companies are gathering as much data as they can, in large part to come up with more effective ads to sell us more stuff, or in the case of the government, to track suspicious activity.
In today’s world even your television can track your viewing behavior and send personalized ads to your mobile phone. But at least one local library has been fighting back and taking a stand for personal privacy.
The Kilton Library in Lebanon, New Hampshire is making private, anonymous Internet browsing software available for their users. Their decision comes even after the Department of Homeland Security alerted New Hampshire authorities to the library’s actions.
The library is offering a technology called “Tor.” It’s a web browser that you download to surf anonymously so websites you visit can’t determine your location.
“There’s something on your Web browser that says that it's private browsing mode, and that is not private,” says Julia Angwin, a senior reporter for ProPublica.
Private web browsing simply removes your search history on the local computer only, says Angwin, “but all the websites you went to already know you were there and have ways of identifying you.”
But Tor works by bouncing your traffic around to a bunch of locations before it gets to the website you're visiting, so those websites don't know where you are.
In standard web browsing, websites you visit can see what's known as your IP address; this is actually the address on the Internet where your computer is connected. It's often very locatable almost exactly to your home or wherever it is you're sitting.
Back in September, Kilton Library became the first in the nation to say they were going to install what’s known as a “Tor node,” which allows the library to join this anonymity network that Tor runs.
“But since then actually many libraries have said they're going to do the same. So I think there may be a kind of a mini-movement going on where libraries are now going to start supporting this network,” says Angwin. The initiative was started by the Library Freedom Project.
Angwin says an agent at the Department of Homeland Security saw some news coverage about Kilton Library’s plans and reached out to the local police.
“That prompted them to show up at the library and say, ‘You know, we really have concerns about you contributing to what can be used as a criminal network.’"
Then the mayor, the city manager and others got involved, and ultimately held a public meeting.
Angwin says the community responded overwhelmingly in support of providing the private browsing option, arguing that “there are a lot of people who need anonymity on the Internet: dissidents, journalists, people who are concerned about any number of different threats to free speech and we want to support it.”
A long history of civil rights
During the Cold War, the Federal Bureau of Investigation asked librarians to report on Russians checking about books on bomb-making, for instance, says Angwin.
Then, she says, “all 50 states passed laws protecting the confidentiality of library records.”
Librarians argued for freedom of speech and freedom of thought, says Angwin.
“The idea that you could just check out anything, the most subversive thing ever, but doesn't mean you're actually a criminal. It means you’re exploring those ideas.”
Angwin says while some people may be willing to give up some privacy for the government to protect people “the problem with that debate right now is that the government first did it in secret without asking for a decade.”
Monitoring has only increased since Sept. 11, 2001. Before the 9/11 attacks the federal government spent $20 billion on intelligence; now Angwin says it spends about $80 billion.
“Maybe they have a really good argument as to why they had to invade our privacy to keep us safe, but I think that we have a right to ask them to be accountable for that.”