Faculty of Information & Media Studies

FIMS Graduate Library receives intellectual freedom award

FIMS Tor Team, Marni Harrington, Lindsay Taylor, Matt WardThe FIMS Graduate Library has been awarded the Ontario Library Association’s Les Fowlie Intellectual Freedom Award, recognizing them for their work in protecting digital privacy rights and educating students in digital privacy issues, academic freedom, and anti-surveillance technology.
 
Marni Harrington, FIMS Librarian, and Matt Ward, FIMS Computing Services staff member, were on hand at the OLA Super Conference in Toronto on February 3, 2017, to receive the award.
 
In March 2016, the FIMS Graduate Library, part of the Faculty of Information & Media Studies, was the first library in Canada to set up a Tor relay, contributing to an international network that allows for encrypted Internet browsing.

Viewed as an important teaching tool for a faculty that houses graduate programs in library science, health information science, media studies and journalism, this past year has seen the Tor node discussed in workshops, used in demos and act as a launching point for discussing wider issues. A small step practically speaking, it has allowed for wide-ranging discussions on privacy issues that affect everyone.

“Graduates from any of our program areas may ultimately work with populations at risk. We want our community to engage with digital privacy and security tools - use them, talk about them, and bring them to their post-graduate jobs and experiences,” explains Harrington.

Marni Harrington and Matt Ward receiving award“The tools that we’ve introduced in our library are part of a larger conversation about academic freedom, censorship and surveillance. It’s a combination of discussion and using these digital tools that will educate our students. We’re not just implementing the tools because they're available – we’re using them to engage students and visitors in conversations about why it is important for us and for library patrons to control their online privacy.”

Lindsay Taylor, an MLIS student who has been involved with the FIMS Tor project since its beginning, adds that she’s hoping the award will inspire others to follow suit.

“It says a lot about the FIMS community and how we are serious about upholding and advocating for the values of intellectual freedom and privacy that are taught here. I hope that with this recognition from OLA other libraries will be encouraged to work against threats to intellectual freedom and privacy on a broader scale.”

Tor technology is not without some controversy, says Matt Ward, who has been assisting with the technical side of the project. He says sometimes people ask why they should be worried about being watched if they aren’t doing anything wrong. But Ward says privacy issues should be of concern to all citizens.

“Big Data is a serious threat to everyone. The mass collection of data could potentially impact all kinds of things with its broad reach. Employment, healthcare, mobility, insurance. Say down the line that you’re denied a job opportunity because the company was able to access information about you that makes them concerned you might be a health liability. You might cost them more money. They may not disclose their reasons to you, but the effect is the same. You don’t get the job. How are we going to respond to that?”

Taylor believes that librarians are very well positioned to educate the public and advocate for protections against these types of threats. She notes that despite our dependence on digital technology, many people don’t understand how vulnerable they are to attacks or breaches of trust. She’s hopeful that improving her own digital literacy skills will help her educate others in her future career.
 
“Librarians can be helpful in bridging potential knowledge gaps between the tech sphere and everyone else, and working on this project is a great opportunity for me to practice not just the technical skills necessary, but also the instructional and outreach components.”

Les Fowlie Award for Intellectual FreedomWard, who has participated in numerous talks and panels related to the Tor relay over the last year, says that there’s a high level of interest in the project, from students, scholars and the public.

“Our students are really excited about this project, want to learn more and contribute. The Tor relay is an example of a technology that students and professors can see and learn about, the data output and input are on a display in our library so visitors can see the node in action,” he says.
 
“People find it fascinating and many students I have talked to are doing their own research on the topic of Tor and other privacy-enhancing technology, which is really great to see.”

The FIMS Tor project may be drawing a lot of attention in part because many people aren’t sure what it is. The Tor relay hosted in the FIMS Graduate Library is just that – a relay point through which digital traffic can flow.

Regular Internet traffic bounces from relay point to relay point on its way to its destination. Typically, information flows unencrypted, and is open to surveillance by corporations, governments, spy agencies, or other interested parties. User information can be collected, shared, sold, or otherwise used without your permission.

A Tor relay allows encrypted information to pass through, increasing the user’s protection against surveillance. It provides anonymous communications that cannot be traced back to an individual or location. This can be particularly important for people living in nations with oppressive governments, for whom communicating and accessing information can be risky, as well as those who are personally persecuted for their religious beliefs or gender orientation.

No data is stored at a Tor relay point like the one operated by the FIMS Graduate Library. It simply allows information to pass through, and contributes to the wider, global Tor network.

“For us in FIMS, advocating for free speech and information privacy goes beyond the American Library Association’s code of ethics. I would say that it is integral to the mandate of our faculty,” says Harrington.

But she’s hoping that other libraries will take up the cause. For any library interested in participating, Harrington adds that the Library Freedom Project, part of a movement encouraging libraries to take on the responsibility to teach information literacies that include online privacy and security, has many resources and tools available.

While a project like this has particular resonance for an academic library, where protecting academic freedom is in the forefront, Harrington hopes that all types of libraries will recognize the value.

“I want digital privacy to become the norm, an expected service in public locations, where patrons can choose to use a Tor browser because it's available on computers in their own library.”

On February 1, 2017, the ALA updated their privacy guidelines to include exactly that scenario. They are now recommending that libraries install a Tor browser on public computers as an option for patrons.

With the use of Tor technology in libraries across North America likely to increase, Taylor believes the educational component becomes even more valuable for students in FIMS.

“It’s especially important for me as a potential future librarian, because I want to be able to explain to patrons how the library is helping to secure their privacy and intellectual freedom, and how they can do it for themselves.”