Sunday, July 12, 2015

The Library Digital Privacy Pledge

I've been busy since my last post! We've created the Free Ebook Foundation, which will be the home for and GITenberg. I helped with the NISO "Consensus Framework to Support Patron Privacy in Digital Library and Information Systems", which I'll write more about soon. And some coding.

But I've also become a volunteer for the Library Freedom Project, run by radical librarian Alison Macrina. The project I'm working on is the "Library Digital Privacy Pledge."

The Library Digital Privacy Pledge is a result of discussions on several listservs about how libraries and the many organizations that serve libraries could work cooperatively to (putting it bluntly) start getting our shit together with regard to patron privacy.

I've talked to a lot of people about privacy in digital libraries, and there's remarkable unity about its importance. There's also a lot of confusion about some basic web privacy technology, like HTTPS. My view is that HTTPS sets a foundation for all the other privacy work that needs doing in libraries.

Someone asked me why I'm so passionate about working on this. After a bit of thought, I realized that the one thing that gives me the most satisfaction in my professional life is eliminating bugs. I hate bugs. Using HTTP for library services is a bug.

The draft of the Library Digital Privacy Pledge is open for comment and improvement  for a few more weeks. We want all sorts of stakeholders to have  a chance to improve it. The current text (July 12, 2015) is as follows: 

The Library Digital Privacy Pledge of 2015

The Library Freedom Project is inviting the library community - libraries, vendors that serve libraries, and membership organizations - to sign the "Library Digital Privacy Pledge of 2015". For this first pledge, we're focusing on the use of HTTPS to deliver library services and the information resources offered by libraries. Building a culture of library digital privacy will not end with this 2015 pledge, but committing to this first modest step together will begin a process that won't turn back.  We aim to gather momentum and raise awareness with this pledge; and will develop similar pledges in the future as appropriate to advance digital privacy practices for library patrons.
We focus on HTTPS as a first step because of its timeliness. At the end of July the Let's Encrypt initiative of the Electronic Frontier Foundation will launch a new certificate infrastructure that will remove much of the cost and technical difficulty involved in the implementation of HTTPS, with general availability scheduled for September. Due to a heightened concern about digital surveillance, many prominent internet companies, such as Google, Twitter, and Facebook, have moved their services exclusively to HTTPS rather than relying on unencrypted HTTP connections. The White House has issued a directive that all government websites must move their services to HTTPS by the end of 2016. We believe that libraries must also make this change, lest they be viewed as technology and privacy laggards, and dishonor their proud history of protecting reader privacy.
The 3rd article of the American Library Association Code of Ethics sets a broad objective:
We protect each library user's right to privacy and confidentiality with respect to information sought or received and resources consulted, borrowed, acquired or transmitted.

It's not always clear how to interpret this broad mandate, especially when the everything is done on the internet. However, one principle of implementation should be clear and uncontroversial:
Library services and resources should be delivered, whenever practical, over channels that are immune to eavesdropping.
The current best practice dictated by this principle is as following:
Libraries and vendors that serve libraries and library patrons, should require HTTPS for all services and resources delivered via the web.

The Pledge for Libraries:

1. All web services and resources that this library directly controls will use HTTPS by the end of 2015.
2. Starting in 2016, this library will not sign or renew any contracts for web services or information resources that do not commit to use HTTPS by the end of 2016.

The Pledge for Service Providers (Publishers and Vendors):

1. All web services that we (the signatories) control will enable HTTPS by the end of 2015.
2. All web services that we (the signatories) offer will require HTTPS by the end of 2016.

The Pledge for Membership Organizations:

1. All web services that this organization directly controls will use HTTPS by the end of 2015.
2. We encourage our members to support and sign the appropriate version of the pledge.


This document will be open for discussion and modification until finalized by July 27, 2015. The finalized pledge will be published on the website of the Library Freedom Project. We expect a number of discussions to take place at the Annual Conference of the American Library Association and associated meetings.
The Library Freedom Project will broadly solicit signatures from libraries, vendors and publishers.
In September, in coordination with the Let's Encrypt project, the list of charter signatories will be made announced and broadly publicized to popular media.


Q: What is HTTPS and what do we need to implement it?
A: When you use the web, your browser software communicates with a server computer through the internet. The messages back and forth pass through a series of computers (network nodes) that work together to pass messages. Depending on where you and the server are, there might be 5 computers in that chain, or there might be 50, each possibly owned by a different service provider. When a website uses HTTP, the content of these messages is open to inspection by each intermediate computer- like a postcard sent through the postal system, as well as by any other computer that shares a network those computers. If you’re connecting to the internet over wifi in a coffee shop, everyone else in the coffee shop can see the messages, too.

When a website uses HTTPS, the messages between your browser software and the server are encrypted so that none of the intermediate  network nodes can see the content of the messages. It’s like sending sealed envelopes through the postal system.

Your web site and other library services may be sending sensitive patron data across the internet: often bar codes and passwords, but sometimes also catalog searches, patron names, contact information, and reading records. This kind of data ought to be inside a sealed envelope, not exposed on a postcard.

Most web server software supports HTTPS, but to implement it, you’ll need to get a certificate signed by a recognized authority. The certificate is used to verify that you are who you say you are. Certificates have added cost to HTTPS, but the Electronic Frontier Foundation is implementing a certificate authority that will give out certificates at no charge. To find out more, go to Let’s Encrypt.

Q: Why the focus on HTTPS?
A: We think this issue should not be controversial and is relatively easy to explain. Libraries understand that circulation information can’t be sent to patron on postcards. Publishers don’t want their content scooped up by unauthorized entities. Service providers don’t want to betray the trust of their customers.
Q. How can my library/organization/company add our names to the list of signatories?
A. Email us at Please give us contact info so we can verify your participation.
Q. Is this the same as HTTPS Everywhere?
A. No, that's a browser plug-in which enforces use of HTTPS.
Q. My Library won't be able to meet the implementation deadline. Can we add our name to the list once we've completed implementation?
A. Yes.
Q. A local school uses an internet filter that blocks https websites to meet legal requirements. Can we sign the pledge and continue to serve them?
A. Most of the filtering solutions include options that will whitelist important services. Work with the school in question to implement a work-around.

Q. What else can I read about libraries using HTTPS?
A. The Electronic Frontier Foundation has published What Every Librarian Needs to Know About HTTPS
Q. How do I know if I have implemented HTTPS correctly?
A. The developers behind the “Let’s Encrypt” initiative are ensuring that best practices are used in setting up the HTTPS configuration.  If you are deploying HTTPS on your own, we encourage you to use the Qualys SSL Labs SSL Server Test service to review the performance of your implementation.  You should strive for at least a “B” rating with no major security vulnerabilities identified in the scan.

Q. Our library subscribes to over 200 databases only a fraction of them currently delivered via https. We might be able to say we will not sign new contracts but the renewal requirement could be difficult for an academic library like ours. Can we sign the pledge?
A. No one is going to penalize libraries that aren’t able to comply 100% with their pledge. One way to satisfy the ethical imperatives of the pledge would be to clearly label for users the small number of insecure library resources that remain after 2016 as being subject to surveillance.

Q. I/We can contribute to the effort in a way that isn’t covered well by the pledges. Can I add another pledge?

A. We want to keep this simple, but we welcome your support. email us with your individualized statement, and we may include it on our website when signatories are announced.

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