A guide on the first steps you can take to protect your online privacy is close to home — right on the Western libraries website.

The work is a collaborative effort between Melissa Seelye and Erin Johnson and is the first online privacy guide published by a Canadian university library for a general audience. 

Seelye is a graduate student in library and information sciences while Johnson is a library assistant in research and instructional services at Weldon Library.

The guide is curated for a general audience, from beginners to more advanced users.

The guide lists privacy protection tools such as Internet browser alternatives, browser extensions, search engine alternatives, private messaging apps and password managers. Included is also more information on privacy policies and legislation implemented by Western and the Canadian government.

“We feel it is pertinent to today’s society,” Johnson said. “It’s a critical literacy in the 21st century. We need to know how to protect our digital privacy. Or at least we need to be aware that everything you put online isn’t safe.” 

Mass surveillance has been a hot topic of discussion since the National Security Agency (NSA) leaks in 2013 by Edward Snowden which disclosed that a number of global surveillance programs were collecting information and monitoring everyday civilians.

According to the Toronto Star, at least 90 per cent of Canada’s digital activity is routed through the United States.

A recent executive order by the Trump administration makes clear that American privacy rights do not apply to non-U.S. citizens. Experts weighing in on the issue are pressuring the Privacy Commissioner of Canada for an immediate review of how this affects the sharing of personal information of Canadians to U.S. agencies.

On March 28, U.S. Congress repealed privacy rules for Internet service providers (ISPs), allowing them to freely share and sell their customers’ information such as their browsing history and geolocation.

“[It’s] something that librarians have upheld for centuries,” Johnson said. “The idea that people should have intellectual freedom. And that becomes infringed if somebody is watching and able to collect data on what you’re searching for and what you’re researching.”

This is not the first time a Western library has stood up for online rights.

In March 2016, the FIMS Graduate Library was the first Canadian library to set up a Tor relay node, contributing to an international network for private and encrypted Internet browsing. They received the Intellectual Freedom Award given by the Ontario Library Association, recognizing their work in protecting digital privacy rights and educating students on digital privacy issues.

“Librarians are becoming very involved in online privacy issues,” Seelye said. “Many librarians feel it is a library issue and it’s something we need to be involved with as a form of information literacy.”

Editor's Note (April 13, 2017):

This article originally stated that the guide is the first of its kind to be published by a Canadian university. In reality, the guide is the first to be published by a Canadian university library for a general audience. 

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