Friday, May 18, 2018

The Shocking Truth About RA21: It's Made of People!

Useful Utilities
logo from 2004
When librarian (and programmer) Chris Zagar wrote a modest URL-rewriting program almost 20 years ago, he expected the little IP authentication utility would be useful to libraries for a few years and would be quickly obsoleted by more sophisticated and powerful access technologies like Shibboleth. He started selling his program to other libraries for a pittance, naming this business "Useful Utilities", fully expecting that it would not disrupt his chosen profession of librarianship.

He was wrong. IP address authentication and EZProxy, now owned and managed by OCLC, are still the access management mainstays for libraries in the age of the internet. IP authentication allows for seamless access to licensed resources on a campus, while EZProxy allows off-campus users to log in just once to get similar access. Meanwhile, Shibboleth, OpenAthens and similar solutions remain feature-rich systems with clunky UIs and little mainstream adoption outside big rich publishers, big rich universities and the UK, even as more distributed identity technologies such as OAuth and OpenID have become ubiquitous thanks to Google, Facebook, Twitter etc.

from My Book House, Vol. I: In the Nursery, p. 197.
So how long will the little engines that could keep chugging? Not long, if the folks at RA21 have their way. Here are some reasons why the EZProxy/IP authentication stack needs replacement:

  1. IP authentication imposes significant administrative burdens on both libraries and publishers. On the library side, EZProxy servers need a configuration file that knows about every publisher  supplying the library. It contains details about the publisher's website that the publisher itself is often unaware of! On the publisher side, every customer's IP address range must be accounted for and updated whenever changes occur. Fortunately, this administrative burden scales with the size of the publisher and the library, so small publishers and small institutions can (and do) implement IP authentication with minimal cost. (For example, I wrote a Django module that does it.)
  2. IP Addresses are losing their grounding in physical locations. As IP address space fills up, access at institutions increasingly uses dynamic IP addresses in local, non-public networks. Cloud access points and VPN tunnels are now common. This has caused publishers to blame IP address authentication for unauthorized use of licensed resources, such as that by Sci-Hub. IP address authentication will most likely get leakier and leakier.
  3. Men Monsters in the middle are dangerous, and the web is becoming less tolerant of them. EZProxy acts as a "Man Monitor in the Middle", intercepting web traffic and inserting content (rewritten links) into the stream. This is what spies and hackers do, and unfortunately the threat environment has become increasingly hostile. In response, publishers that care about user privacy and security have implemented website encryption (HTTPS) so that users can be sure that the content they see is the content they were sent.

    In this environment, EZProxy represents an increasingly attractive target for hackers. A compromised EZProxy server could be a potent attack vector into the systems of every user of a library's resources. We've been lucky that (as far as is known) EZProxy is not widely used as a platform for system compromise, probably because other targets are softer.

    Looking into the future, it's important to note that new web browser APIs, such as service workers, are requiring secure channels. As publishers begin to make use these API's, it's likely that EZProxy's rewriting will unrepairably break new features.

So RA21 is an effort to replace IP authentication with something better. Unfortunately, the discussions around RA21 have been muddled because it's being approached as if RA21 is a product design, complete with use cases, technology pilots, and abstract specifications. But really, RA21 isn't a technology, or a product. It's a relationship that's being negotiated.

What does it mean that RA21 is a relationship? At its core, the authentication function is an expression of trust between publishers, libraries and users. Publishers need to trust libraries to "authenticate" the users for whom the content is licensed. Libraries need to trust users that the content won't be used in violation of their licenses. So for example, users are trusted keep their passwords secret. Publishers also have obligations in the relationship, but the trust expressed by IP authentication flows entirely in one direction.

I believe that IP Authentication and EZProxy have hung around so long because they have accurately represented the bilateral, asymmetric relationships of trust between users, libraries, and publishers. Shibboleth and its kin imperfectly insert faceless "Federations" into this relationship while introducing considerable cost and inconvenience.

What's happening is that publishers are losing trust in libraries' ability to secure IP addresses. This is straining and changing the relationship between libraries and publishers. The erosion of trust is justified, if perhaps ill-informed. RA21 will succeed only if creates and embodies a new trust relationship between libraries, publishers, and their users. Where RA21 fails, solutions from Google/Twitter/Facebook will succeed. Or, heaven help us, Snapchat.

Whatever RA21 turns out to be, it will add capability to the user authentication environment. IP authentication won't go away quickly - in fact the shortest path to RA21 adoption is to slide it in as a layer on top of EZProxy's IP authentication. But capability can be good or bad for parties in a relationship. An RA21 beholden to publishers alone will inevitably be used for their advantage. For libraries concerned with privacy, the scariest prospect is that publishers could require personal information as a condition for access. Libraries don't trust that publishers won't violate user privacy, nor should they, considering how most of their websites are rife with advertising trackers.

It needn't be that way. RA21 can succeed by aligning its mission with that of libraries and earning their trust. It can start by equalizing representation on its steering committee between libraries and publishers (currently there are 3 libraries, 9 publishers, and 5 other organizations represented; all three of the co-chairs represent STEM publishers.) The current representation of libraries omits large swaths of libraries needing licensed resources. MIT, with its Class A huge IP address block, has little in common with my public library, the local hospital, or our community colleges. RA21 has no representation of Asia, Africa, or South America, even on the so-called "outreach" committee. The infrastructure that RA21 ushers in could exert a great deal of power; it will need to do so wisely for all to benefit.

To learn more...
Thanks to Lisa Hinchliffe and Andromeda Yelton for very helpful background.

Would you let your kids see an RA21 movie?

Update 5/17/2019: A year later, the situation is about the same

Friday, May 4, 2018

Choose Privacy Week: Your Library Organization Is Watching You

Choose Privacy Week
T. J. Lamana and I have written a post for Choose Privacy Week. It's mirrored here, but be sure to check out all the great posts there.

Your Library Organization Is Watching You

We commonly hear that ‘Big Brother’ is watching you, in the context of digital and analog surveillance such as Facebook advertising, street cameras, E-Zpass highway tracking or content sniffing by internet service providers. But it’s not only Big Brother, there are a lot of “Little Brothers” as well, smaller less obvious that wittingly or unwittingly funnel data, including personal identifiable information (PII) to massive databases. Unfortunately libraries (and related organizations) are a part of this surveillance environment. In the following we’ll break down two example library organization websites. We’ll be focusing on two American Library Association (ALA) websites: ALA’s Office of Intellectual Freedom’s Choose Privacy Week website ( and ALA’s umbrella site (

Before we dive too deeply, let’s review some basics about the data streams generated by a visit to a website. When you visit a website, your browser software - Chrome, Firefox, Safari, etc. - sends a request containing your IP address, the address of the webpage you want, and a whole bunch of other information. If the website supports “SSL”, most of that information is encrypted. If not, network providers are free to see everything sent or received. Without SSL, bad actors who share the networks can insert code or other content into the webpage you receive. The easiest way to see if a site has a valid SSL certificate is to look at the protocol identifier of a url. If it’s ‘HTTPS’, that traffic is encrypted, if it’s ‘HTTP’ DO NOT SEND any personally identifiable information (PII), as there is no guarantee that traffic is being protected. If you’re curious about the quality of a sites encryption, you can check its “Qualys report”, offered by SSL Labs., which checks the website’s configuration, and assigns a letter grade. gets a B; ChoosePrivacyWeek gets a A. The good news is that even’s B is an acceptable grade. The bad news is that the B grade is for “”, whose response is reproduced here in its entirety:

Unfortunately the ALA website is mostly available only without SSL encryption.

You don’t have to check the SSL Labs to see the difference. You can recognize as a “secure” connection by looking for the lock badge in your browser; click on that badge for more info. Here’s what the sites look like in Chrome:

Don’t assume that your privacy is protected just because a site has a lock badge, because the was is designed to spew data about you in many ways. Remember that “whole bunch of other information” we glossed over above? Included in that “other information” are “cookies” which allow web servers to keep track of your browsing session. It’s almost impossible to use the web these days without sending these cookies. But many websites include third party services that track your session as well. These are more insidious, because they give you an identifier that joins your activity across multiple websites. The combination of data from thousands of websites often gives away your identity, which then can be used in ways you have no control over.

Privacy Badger is a browser extension created by the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) which monitors the embedded code in websites that may be tracking your web traffic. You can see a side-by-side comparison of on the left and ChoosePrivacyWeek on the right:

The 2 potential trackers identified by Privacy Badger on ChoosePrivacyWeek are third party services: fonts from Google and an embedded video player from Vimeo. These are possibly tracking users, but are not optimized to do so. The 4 trackers on merit a closer look. They’re all from Google; the ones of concern are placed by Google Analytics. One of us has written about how Google analytics can be configured to respect user privacy, if you trust Google’s assurances. To its credit, has turned on the "anonymizeIP" setting, which in theory obscures user’s identity. But it also has “demographics” turned on, which causes an advertising (cross-domain) cookie to be set for users of, and Google’s advertising arm is free to use user data to target advertising (which is how Google makes money). PrivacyBadger allows you to disable any or all of these trackers and potential trackers (though doing so can break some websites).

Apart from giving data to third parties, any organization has to have internal policies and protocols for handling the reams of data generated by website users. It’s easy to forget that server logs may be grow to contain hundreds of gigabytes or more of data that can be traced back to individual users. We asked ALA about their log retention policies with privacy in mind. ALA was kind enough to respond:
“We always support privacy, so internal meetings are occurring to determine how to make sure that we comply with all applicable laws while always protecting member/customer data from exposure. Currently, ALA is taking a serious look at collection and retention in light of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) EU 2016/679, a European Union law on data protection and privacy for all individuals within the EU. It applies to all sites/businesses that collect personal data regardless of location.”
Reading in between the lines, it sounds like ALA does not yet have log retention policies or protocols. It’s encouraging that these items are on the agenda, but disappointing that it’s 2018 and these items are on the agenda. has a 4 year old privacy policy on its website that talks about the data it collects, but has no mention of a retention policy, or of third party service use.

The ChoosePrivacyWeek website has a privacy statement that’s more emphatic:
We will collect no personal information about you when you visit our website unless you choose to provide that information to us.
The lack of tracking on the site is aligned with this statement, but we’d still like to see a statement about log retention. ChoosePrivacyWeek is hosted on a DreamHost WordPress server, and usage log files at Dreamhost were recently sought by the Department of Justice in the case.

Organizations express their priorities and values in their actions. ALA’s stance toward implementing HTTPS will be familiar to many librarians; limited IT resources get deployed according competing priorities. In the case of ALA, a sorely needed website redesign was deemed more important to the organization than providing incremental security and privacy to website users by implementing HTTPS. Similarly, the demographic information provided by Google’s advertising tracker was valued more than member privacy (assuming ALA is aware of the trade-off). The website has a different set of values and objectives, and thus has made some different choices.

In implementing their websites and services, libraries make many choices that impact on user privacy. We want librarians, library administrators, library technology staff and library vendors to be aware of the choices they are making, and aware of the values they are expressing on behalf of an organization or of a library. We hope that they will CHOOSE PRIVACY.