transmitting in cleartext #accessyfc


This is the text of a short Ignite talk I gave at the Access Conference in 2016. Ignite format is 5 minutes with auto-advancing slides every 15 seconds, so that’s why it’s got the lack of detail it does. I might link to a video version of this talk at some point too, ’cause otherwise the mad prophet aspect might get a little lost. In the meantime, please enjoy.

Hi everyone. I’m J Jack Unrau.

I don’t code much but I spend loads of my time on a public library info desk doing community tech support and talking about digital privacy, which is what I’m here for today.

just a bunch of hilarious stuff

Having been a children’s librarian and radio-based reading advisor, I feel well-equipped to tell you a story about what it means to me to teach people how to deal with the cyberpunk dystopia we have the fortune to be living in.

libr*folk get people hacked

Do you remember 2013 when a huge list of IDs and passwords were stolen from Adobe, including all the accounts librarians had made people get so they could read Overdrive ebooks?

It was terrible explaining to people what happened, & not just because it was our fault.

inigo montoya line (not that bit, the other one)

Adobe was storing passwords in poorly encrypted fashion and transmitting them in cleartext.

Or plaintext.


Shoot, which is for vim and which is about encryption again?


The words cleartext and plaintext got bandied about a bunch.

escape from efrafa

In the wake of this breach, our library’s agitated techy public services librarians, like Emily Orr, got a notification posted and warned people to change their passwords.

And then we fell down the rabbithole of translating what cleartext means to plainspoken people.


Because it’s kind of counter-intuitive.

We usually want people who aren’t making some artistic statement to be clear communicators.

We want to get to the point in 300 seconds.

We want to communicate plainly and simply.

We want to tell our stories so we’re understood.

the opposite of clarity

When we’re teaching encryption and security, though, we’re promoting the value of obfuscation and complication.

No matter how much we say “You don’t do this because you have something to hide! It’s not just for pornographers” it’s still weird.

library freedom project

Some smart public-oriented folk have been working on this education project: teaching people what it means to encrypt for your security and liberty.

Alison Macrina‘s founding work on the Library Freedom Project is hugely important and useful.

They are showing us a path to teach these skills to our users.

So what are we doing with those resources?

we do what we must because we can

I teach monthly classes on electronic privacy (that are sparsely attended).

In these sessions we talk about governments and corporations and other thieves, what they want with people’s data, things they will do to get it, and what people can do to try and protect themselves.

using tech better will save us!

I explain digital rights management to our senior citizens.

For Freedom to Read Week a teen and his mom and I built a Tor router from a Raspberry Pi.

I’m doing my part to inch people along the path to looking after their security, to knowing why transmitting in cleartext is so bad.

but it won’t

However, this is not a “we done good” story.

This is a story set in 2016, after all.

This is ending in an apocalyptic trash fire.

normalizing technocracy

The world we inhabit is one where you can have all sorts of digital freedom if you know how to code, navigate pirated media repositories, blocklist the cesspools of Twitter, or run a VPN around Netflix / a repressive regime.

everyone loves setec astronomy

This world is made for people like me.

Doing what I do makes me feel good about “fixing” our users.

I love my secret arcane knowledge and I love sharing that secret arcane knowledge to help technophobes understand what I love about these tools.

we don’t need more technologists

But that makes the story about people like us.

Our goal can’t be to make the public more like us.

Doing this education stuff feels more and more like sharing tips from the lucky times the techy scouts weren’t squashed by the giants out ravaging.

earning freedom is bullshit

Teaching special tech tricks to fix our special users – the ones who ask for the knowledge, come to the classes – that isn’t enough.

That lets things get worse and worse for those who have more important things to do than taking a class on Facebook privacy settings (like Facebook chatting with their kid three timezones away).


I’m an info-desk librarian.

I love helping people directly.

Communicating clearly about this stuff to a few people at a time feels good, but isn’t efficient.

The **most important** thing I’ve done for our users is harass IT into installing Privacy Badger on our public computers.

can we build it?

Users need tools for a default experience that is better for them than what fresh surveillance machines from BestBuy can do.

Maybe with Calibre and DeDRM plugins and LibraryBoxen and VPNs and adblockers for everyone we could make libraries have people’s backs even if they have no tech skills.

probably not

I get that there are economic concerns and political concerns in libraries and society that have grim answers for “why don’t we just…?” kinds of questions.

They’re the giants trampling the countryside, the 6th and 7th suns, all that apocalyptic stuff we can’t affect while we scurry among the shitty policies.

we’re doomed. now what?

Roy Scranton wrote this essay last year about how we can’t look to technology or politics to save us from climate change and the end of western civilization.

We have to learn how to remember and let go.

For me, sharing stories is the remembering value we’re adding.

uplifting dénouement missing

I guess I’m just saying teaching digital privacy classes gives us and our users practice at sharing the ransomware folktales we’ll someday tell huddled round our trashcan fires.

Which wasn’t what I expected, but I think it still has value.

Thanks. No moral.

not quite a comeback

I’m moving! This upcoming week is my last one as a children’s librarian, which is sad, but my new job (with the same library system) is in a town I think I’ll be able to cobble together a bit more satisfying a life than up here, so it’s a good change.

See, I like doing storytimes. I like talking with kids about books and putting some excellent story or information in a young person’s hand so she can make new folds in her brain is awesome. But I’m not really a great early literacy specialist. I’m very conscious that when I do storytime I’m just reading kids stories and making them laugh, but we aren’t doing as much of that value-added educational stuff as real children’s specialists make happen.

My new job is on the information desk in a more urban branch. I think it’ll play more to my strengths so I can do really awesome stuff with our community rather than just the stuff I’m capable of doing. I’m planning to try to do more internet privacy/security type stuff and maybe help host the monthly librarian radio show and generally focus more on what we can do to ensure our librarianly freedom of information kinds of ideals from my place on the ground.

Speaking of which, there’s some interesting discussion of Vancouver Public Library’s shitty new Internet Use Policy out there. Check out Bibliocracy’s take Policy Politics Porn: VPL’s Public Internet Problem if you have a bit of time, or Metacate’s analysis of the situation if you want to read about it from a more pure policy-creation perspective: Shaking the Jar: VPL’s newly recommended policy on public internet use.

Also, and unrelated to the VPL thing, I’m no longer the co-chair of the BCLA Intellectual Freedom Committee. Doing committee work isn’t a very natural fit for me, and I didn’t feel I was doing a very good job of it. Then the time I spent worrying about how I was doing a bad job was building stress whenever I sat down to the computer and wasn’t addressing the issues at hand. That’s why I haven’t really been reviewing books in 2014. I’m much happier being off on my own to write my own shit as I feel like it.

I’ll be off on a vacation soon, but before then I hope to be getting some more writing up here.

new job-like thing for my non-work hours

This month I almost forgot to renew my BC Library Association (BCLA) membership. I originally got membership as a student for free but now that I’m a totally legitimate professional, it costs money, so it’s something I can easily let slip through the cracks. But letting my membership lapse would be kind of awkward and weird at this point since I’m now officially a co-chair of BCLA’s Intellectual Freedom Committee (IFC) with David Waddell. Woo!

In his “passing the baton” email to the BCLA and IFC lists the outgoing chair, Jon Scop, commented on how it’s kind of interesting to have an intellectual freedom leadership position going from one male children’s librarian to two male children’s librarians. To me it seems obvious that children’s librarians would be big intellectual freedom advocates.

This was banned books week in the states, and it’s totally commonplace at this point to note how many challenged books are kids’ books like Captain Underpants. Minors are a chunk of our society with very little power and there’s a huge swathe of society that wants to protect kids from ideas adults don’t want them to have. I see my role as a children’s librarian as serving kids, not their parents or teachers, which is quite fundamentally anti-elitist and subversive (one of the things I love about librarianship).

Saying “I can’t let you see that” to a segment of community members just because they don’t have a bunch of legal rights (to vote or drink or go to war or whatever) is kind of anathema to the librarian ideal. While teens are fierce defenders of their own intellectual freedom, librarians are natural adult allies, especially since we don’t have any real power over them (I suppose we can kick them out of the library), just expertise to offer. As a children’s librarian, part of my job is to take seriously what kids are interested in pursuing when they are looking for help, and not saying “Ugh, more Fairies/Pokemon/Sparkly Vampires?”

One of my formative kidbrarian experiences happened on my first day working a refdesk (which I blogged at the time). I’m still proud of my instincts to bring the 12-year-old kid over to the shelf where we kept Mein Kampf. In one of my post-MLIS job interviews I was asked what I’d do with an 11-year-old girl asking about Fifty Shades of Grey. In that interview I fucked up. I tried to make myself more hireable by waffling a bit and adding some more questions to my reference interview to make sure the kid knew it wasn’t a book for kids. Seriously, I hate that I did that and I totally blame the whole job-search process for making me less than confident in my ideals and whether someone would actually hire a kids librarian who wouldn’t blink at giving an 11-year-old steamy fanfic. That’s the kidbrarian I want and try to be.

Yesterday I was in a middle school talking to a bunch of 8th graders about the library and why we’re relevant to them. This was one of the things I stressed to them. In the eyes of our library, once they’re 13 they have adult cards and we won’t tell anyone what they’re borrowing. I told them that we don’t care if they want to read Pokemon comics (or other materials “below their level”) or Anais Nin. If we find something for them and it doesn’t work, we’ll try something else. That’s the whole point.

Anyway, all that is to say that youth librarians make total sense as intellectual freedom defenders (but I won’t subject you to my theories of why it makes sense there’d be a confluence of male children’s librarians doing this stuff, because I wouldn’t want to paint any other librarians with my weird gender-role identity issues). I’m looking forward to working with BCLA’s IFC on these issues, but as always whatever I say is just me talking, not official views on anything unless I clearly mark it as such. You can read our blog and follow us on Twitter.

public tech support, lavabit and me

A few weeks ago, a library member asked me to help her sign up for Facebook to find her kid. This is something I’m never entirely sure if I’m supposed to be doing. I mean, technically this takes up a bunch of time, and it’s not directly connected with our library resources. But really, for a lot of people who use our public internet computers I’m the public equivalent to the family member who can reset grandma’s VCR (which was not my job in our family – thank goodness for actually techy cousins). So I help with this kind of thing fairly often.

This particular instance was kind of interesting because the library member wanted to get rid of her Hotmail address before getting back into Facebook. For people who don’t use these tools all the time there’s a lot more disposability to these identities, which I find interesting. I mean, I wouldn’t trash an email address just because I forgot my Facebook password, but people do it.

I talked to her about how she didn’t need to delete her Hotmail account just to get onto Facebook again, but she was adamant, so I helped her do it. But before doing that I did manage to explain how we should set up a separate email address first. The idea of having two email addresses to be able to authenticate each other is a stumbling block I run into a lot with our library members especially because so many of them don’t have phones to get texts for authentication codes modern web authentication likes to use.

I asked her if she wanted a different Hotmail address and she didn’t. I suggested setting up a Gmail account and she had this visceral reaction against Google. I didn’t press on about it, but am interested in why this non-technologist grandmother really didn’t want to be associated with Google. Because of that reaction though, and because I’d gathered she didn’t use her email very often and basically just needed it to get on Facebook, I suggested setting her up with a Lavabit account, and she was fine with that.

So Lavabit was a very secure email provider (the one that Edward Snowden used) but they had a small free account option, which would work for this member’s purposes. We got her set up and then used it as her Facebook login, and I was pleased to be able to teach someone a bit about email and how it works.

Now, you probably know this already but I have to use the past tense talking about Lavabit, because that Snowden association got Lavabit shut down. They were going to have to comply with US government requests they felt were counter to their values so they shuttered up and are now involved in a big legal fight. And I have kind of created more problems for this library member who I haven’t seen recently if she wants to actually check her email. But she should still be able to get on Facebook, which was all she really wanted.

I don’t know if there’s a moral to this story that I actually want to draw from it. I mean, the obvious lesson is that I should only help people set things up with major corporations’ products because there’s much less chance they’ll disappear. But especially when those corporations are helping to spy on people I feel like I shouldn’t be just handing them naive users. Providing options and alternatives is something I feel strongly about. But most people want something that just works not an education in information policy and privacy, so I should probably be going with simpler tools than better ones?

Bah. I don’t know. If I get the chance I’ll help that member with setting up something to replace her now disabled Lavabit email address and hope my advice didn’t sour her completely on using the tools of the 21st century.

refdesk assistance and all the feels

I haven’t written about specific reference interactions I have with library members as much as I used to in this job. A big part of that is a privacy concern because the library I work at now is the only library in a small town and I’m more conscious here that a lot of locals wouldn’t need names to identify people I mention. It’s kind of sad, because people tend to ask about interesting things, and telling stories about cool funny things that happen at the refdesk is a lot of fun.

So I totally wish I’d written this post Andy from Agnostic Maybe did about helping a library member use the internet. The gentleman who asks a lot of questions while he’s learning about word processing on the computer says “You are the first person who doesn’t laugh at me when I ask these kinds of questions.” It is enough to melt a librarian’s heart. Here’s some of Andy’s reaction:

It’s impossible to be actually nice all the time, so we do have to fake it to make it through sometimes. But his generous statement was a reminder of the importance of what I do in the lives of the people I serve. So much so that I’m starting to wonder if knowledge and information is just a secondary role in the lives of librarians. Yes, answers are important, but as I travel along my career path, I’m not always sure that’s what people are looking for when they come to the library. Empathy, kindness, and acceptance may be the larger underlying factors here.

In asking a question, it can present a vulnerability in which a person acknowledges a intellectual lacuna. In this fleeting moment, they don’t want to be judged, ridiculed, or otherwise embarrassed by a reaction to the content of their inquiry. They want to know they are safe with a person they can trust. The reference transaction isn’t simply about connecting someone to their answer, but how they feel about it along the way and after they leave.

One of the phrases that Andy uses in response to the person he’s helping is “that’s what I’m here for,” which is something I totally say every day. It’s funny how people apologize for asking me questions when I’m on desk, when that is totally why I’m there. “I don’t want to interrupt,” they say even though anything I’m doing out there is just filling the time between questions.

Yesterday I got to do one of those really fun reference interviews, where the library member and I were bouncing between the shelves and the computer looking for everything we could find about salamanders and how they regrow bits of themselves and if that has anything to do with the symbolism of mythological salamanders. We didn’t need to find anything super in-depth, just enough to satisfy his curiosity. In terms of pure informational transfer, I’m not sure how much real use he got out of it (I learned a bunch of good bits for possible trivia nights). But in terms of how he felt about the interaction, I know he was excited that I was excited to help him look this stuff up.

Anyway, I just thought that Agnostic, Maybe post was a good important one about how empathy matters.

Helpdesk 01 by Peter Cuhalev on Flickr shared under a CC-BY-NC-2.0 license

i left my heart at the refdesk

Helpdesk 01 by Peter Cuhalev on Flickr shared under a CC-BY-NC-2.0 license

Helpdesk 01 by Peter Cuhalev on Flickr shared under a CC-BY-NC-2.0 license

The last in a short series of posts where I talk about what exactly I do in my new job as a Children’s and Youth Librarian.

The best part of my job isn’t telling stories to preschoolers, surprisingly. It’s sitting at the information desk for people to ask me questions. As I see it my job is out on the desk, and anything that isn’t directly helping people find what they’re looking for is just killing time till the next question.

Helping people find books we have or placing holds on books that are at a different branch is the quick stuff. I also place Inter Library Loan requests when our branches don’t have items. That’s when people have specific books they’re looking for.

Sometimes people have questions about more specific things that we don’t have books about, like “How do I make a fire the way First Nations people used to?” or “What should I look for in an HDTV?” For those kinds of things I get to be a bit more of a librarian superhero and find a decent website or use our databases to find and print off an article from some magazine. Most of our patrons are not used to the modern research process so I get to do the balance between finding things for people and teaching them how to use resources a bit more efficiently. And after a few months in this job there are members who come by to chat because we’ve used the internet to figure out the bus schedules in Prince George and Powell River together.

Plus, the info desk is where I get to be the resident technology wizard. I spend 20 minutes helping members set up their Kobos to work with the library’s ebooks. I help people with the arcane ridiculous process to print documents and show people alternate ways to share NFL videos when the Email button stops working.

These are the tasks I missed the hell out of when I was in library school and not working a refdesk. And I’m glad I get to do them now, rather than being locked away in an office. Even now I spend about 20% of my work week in the office and it makes me itch. There’s a bit of a perception, in our branch at least, that when it’s quiet or you’re in the office you can get some work done. In my head that’s not the work I’m a librarian to do.

Now, I like doing programs, and programming is what employers want (in public libraries at least). If program planning (including storytimes) was cut out of my job I’d be disappointed. If my on-desk time was excised I’d have to find a new job. This is just too much of what being a librarian is to me. Eventually this may prove to be my undoing career-wise since it seems like on-desk time is the first thing you lose when you get promoted in libraryland.

But I’ll deal with that if it comes. For now I’ll be helping answer questions like I was born to do.

instructional role

When I taught English in China, I wasn’t a very good teacher. I did it though. It was a good experience, doing something I knew I was bad at, trying to get better, but not really knowing how. Me blundering along through failure for a couple of years was great for everyone. Except my students. And my self-esteem. Erm.

The thing is that when I got back to Canada and especially when I started working at a library reference desk I realized I’m not too shabby at one-on-one/small group instruction, especially when everyone is speaking the same language. It was teaching people to talk I was terrible at. But I still didn’t have a good handle on how to teach better or how to develop a lesson plan or anything like that.

So for me, my hands-down most useful class in my MLIS has been LIBR535: The Instructional Role of the Information Professional. The past couple of weeks we’ve been doing our short lessons and with actual guidance on how to do this stuff (simple guidance like “plan your lesson backwards from its objectives” and “making people physically do stuff is good because…”) I felt really good about it. And man oh man does it ever help when you’re teaching something you find interesting.
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