Surveillance, Self-Censorship and Social Justice

A Good American

This week I took part in a panel discussion and Q&A following the screening of the film A Good American, which tells the story of individuals involved in the development of the ThinThread surveillance programme in the USA and how it was killed off by the NSA in favour of the more expensive, intrusive and ineffective Trailblazer programme. The film was incredibly interesting and educational, and I’d seriously recommend giving it a watch if you can. As someone relatively new to issues around mass surveillance, I thought the film provided a really easy to follow and engaging history and insight into the technology of why and how mass surveillance functions, and the implications for people’s privacy.

We were also honoured to be joined by Rebecca Vincent, UK Bureau Director for Reporters Without Borders, as well as Bill Binney, a former NSA Technical Director, and Kirk Wiebe, a former NSA Senior Analyst. Bill and Kirk featured heavily in the film itself and were two of the key individuals behind the ThinThread programme. Being able to ask them questions and hear their views on the UK and the implications of the Investigatory Powers Act was a real privilege, albeit in a very worrying context.

I was asked to talk about the implications of mass surveillance on freedom of expression and access to information, as well as the role of libraries and librarians in helping people protect their privacy. For once, I wrote a rough script! I’ve posted it below.


David McMenemy and I are currently working with Nik and Scottish PEN on a study of Scottish writers’ conceptions of surveillance and its potential impact on freedom of expression. This is a follow-up study to a survey conducted by American PEN and PEN International in other countries. PEN American Center (2013) says:

We know—historically, from writers and intellectuals in the Soviet Bloc, and contemporaneously from writers, thinkers, and artists in China, Iran, and elsewhere—that aggressive surveillance regimes limit discourse and distort the flow of information and ideas. But what about the new democratic surveillance states?

PEN’s original study gave participants the chance to discuss their concerns around surveillance, and the significant themes included writers’ self-censorship and fear that their communications would bring harm to themselves, their friends, and their sources.

They found that writers are self-censoring their work and their online activity due to their fears that commenting on, researching, or writing about certain issues will cause them harm. For example, writers reported self-censoring on subjects including military affairs, the Middle East North Africa region, mass incarceration, drug policies, pornography, the Occupy movement, the study of certain languages, and criticism of the U.S. government.

The fear of surveillance—and doubt over the way in which the government intends to use the data it gathers — has prompted writers to change their behaviour in numerous ways that curtail their freedom of expression and restrict the free flow of information.

For example, significant numbers have:

  • Curtailed or avoided social media activities,
  • Deliberately avoided certain topics in phone or email conversations,
  • Avoided writing or speaking about a particular topic,
  • Refrained from conducting internet searches or visiting websites on topics that may be considered controversial or suspicious,
  • Taken extra steps to disguise or cover their digital footprints, or
  • Declined opportunities to meet or speak to people who might be deemed security threats by the government.

We have replicated this study in the Scottish context, and an initial look at the results shows very similar findings. We are seeing that writers are following news stories about government surveillance efforts within the UK, are worried about current levels of government surveillance of Britons, and have concerns about corporate and government surveillance.

The behaviour being described by writers, about the steps they are taking to protect themselves from becoming victims of the surveillance state, in many cases takes the form of self-censorship. They are simply not engaging with areas of intellectual and public life that they otherwise would do.

Implications of self-censorship

One troubling aspect of self-censorship is that it is impossible to know what contributions to society are being lost because of it. PEN (2013) raises the important issue that “we will never know what books or articles may have been written that would have shaped the world’s thinking on a particular topic if they are not written because potential authors are afraid that their work would invite retribution”. We know that many writers, academics and members of society more widely, are hesitant to communicate their thoughts because of rational concerns around surveillance.

This has implications not only for culture, but for social justice and human rights.

Social justice and human rights

From a social justice perspective, surveillance creates a panoptical environment in which people’s sense of being watched affects their everyday lives. People respond differently to these circumstances; some feeling more secure and safe, and others much less so. We simply do not know enough about the psychological impacts of living under highly surveilled circumstances to anticipate what impact it will have on people throughout the course of their lives. We do know that members of minority groups are more likely to be surveilled (Renderos 2016), thereby adding to the existing conditions of relative disadvantage and increased systemic violence and oppression. As Malkia Cyril states, “lawful democratic activism is being monitored illegally without a warrant” and encryption technologies offer vulnerable groups such as people of colour, immigrants, welfare recipients and political activists who challenge the status quo, the ability to more safely exercise their democratic rights (Renderos 2016).


Avoiding mass surveillance is not a simple case of opting out of using certain resources. Even people using the most secure tools that offer protection against surveillance of content (what is being said) cannot protect themselves fully from being surveilled at the level of metadata (when/where/to whom it is being said – which in itself provides a lot of detail about what may have been said). Additionally, many people feel like they can’t avoid engaging with insecure means of communication that the majority of their networks and wider society are engaging with, if they want to avoid marginalisation. However, many people simply do not comprehend the extent of surveillance made possible by these technologies – they do not know the extent of the surveillance they are subject to. Whereas many of the participants in our self-censorship and surveillance survey described their awareness and the steps they have taken to increase their security, writers are largely a relatively privileged group. Members of society more widely do not have the benefits and knowledge that many of us do have.

I think we therefore need to teach the public about surveillance – both to help raise awareness of the fallacy that “if you have nothing to hide you have nothing to fear” (Coustick-Deal 2015) and help people to resist it, through challenging policies and laws as well as equipping themselves with the skills and resources to protect their privacy. There is an increasing interest in this work from librarians who want to help their users protect their online security in terms of both corporate and state surveillance. Scottish PEN has been working with the US-based Library Freedom Project to develop a toolkit for libraries so they can advise users on the software and practices they can employ to protect themselves. Libraries and groups like the Open Rights Group and Radical Librarians Collective have held cryptoparties to help people with their ‘privacy checklists’ around encryption and other actions they can take.

We need to do more than this, however. As educators, librarians need to resist policies and interventions such as the Prevent initiative, which asks university and school staff to watch out for the ‘potential radicalisation’ of the students in their institutions. The Government has implemented training on how to spot ‘radical ideologies’ (including Islamic extremism and anti-capitalist agendas) and legally binds them to report these to the authorities who then have the right to question their friends and family, seize any and all academic work by the suspected student, and investigate other aspects of their public and private lives. For example, a student at Staffordshire University on their Terrorism, Crime and Global Security course was questioned by university security after being reported by library staff for being seen reading a book about terrorism, in the library. He subsequently withdrew from his course. This is one of many accounts of actions that Ali Milani (2016) describes as “creating and propagating a narrative of suspicion around an entire community”.

With the rise of the surveillance state, these events are going to become more common, and have more of an impact on people’s rights to education, freedom of thought and freedom of expression. Even without the explicit removal of these rights, the oppressive systems of surveillance we are increasingly encountering will have extremely negative impacts on the universal rights of those who most need them.


Coustick-Deal, R. (2015). Responding to “Nothing to hide, Nothing to fear”.

Milani, A. (2016). Dear Owen Smith – Backing the Racist Prevent Strategy Won’t Win You This Election, It’ll Lose Labour Votes. Huffington Post Blog, 12th August 2016.

PEN American Center (2013). Chilling Effects: NSA Surveillance Drives U.S. Writers to Self-Censor.

Renderos, S. (2016). To the next POTUS: For communities of colour, encryption is a civil right. TechCrunch, 6th May 2016.

Tucker, I. Ellis, D. and Harper, D. (2016) Experiencing the ‘surveillance society’. The psychologist, 29, pp.682-685.

[Image: Still from A Good American, Slingshot Films]


Libraries and Vinyl

I’m giving a talk on public library cuts and closures at an art exhibition held by Golau Glau on Saturday 12th November at Test Space in Leeds.

Golau Glau are an anonymous collective of artists, photographers and musicians, with particular interests in social history, not-silences & environments under threat – both urban and natural. Their body of work to date has examined themes of domestic, social and sexual politics; popular culture; scandal; folk  history and Anglican and pagan rituals.

Thursday 10th – Exhibition launch with live sounds from Hookworms and DJ sets from Runners and A Negative Narrative

Saturday 12th – Vinyl only DJ set from Sonic Router and Lauren Smith from Voices for the Library giving a talk about public library cuts and closures”

It’s a bit of a departure from what I’m used to, which is scary and exciting at the same time. I’m planning on connecting what’s happening to the public library service to some of the themes that the collective deal with – for example the politics of knowledge, and public libraries as some of the last remaining non-commercial spaces we have. I’m hoping to reach a wider audience than I would at a library-specific event, and hopefully get people thinking about the value of libraries in ways they might not have before.

Talk at the West Yorkshire Playhouse

Today I spoke at Windows on the World: Keeping Them Open – The prospects for public service broadcasting, libraries and arts. Below is the script which I tried to stick to! I had 10-15 minutes to speak and an awful lot to cram in, so I followed the advice of the wise daveyp and aimed for about 20 points that got a minute or two each. Hopefully I was factually accurate and vaguely informative…

Continue reading “Talk at the West Yorkshire Playhouse”

Umbrellas, Windows and Voices

I was given the opportunity to go to a day of the Umbrella conference thanks to sponsorship from Credo Reference for Voices for the Library. I had a fantastic time and thoroughly enjoyed the sessions, catching up with people, making new acquaintances and finally meeting people I really should have met in person before now! I found some sessions particularly valuable, most notably Christine Rooney-Browne’s talk on measuring the value of libraries (there are some really useful links that she shared on the Voices site). Some of the themes that emerged from discussions in John Pateman and John Vincent’s session about the Big Society, social justice and public libraries were thought-provoking, such as the concept of ’empowerment’ from above, accountability, accessibility and engaging core, passive and non-users. My focus was inevitably on public libraries, with my Voices hat on, but I also found the talk by David Hunter, the Strategy and Performance Manager at the National Library of Scotland very interesting too. He discussed the bibliometric evaluation method that the NLS has been experimenting with, to try and discern the ways in which library users benefit from the library’s resources. There’s much work to be done, but I’m excited about its potential.

So much of what Gerald Leitner, EBLIDA President and Secretary General of the Austrian Library Association, the keynote speaker on Tuesday morning, had to say about the need for library and information professionals to take control of emerging digital copyright issues and negotiate with publishers made a lot of sense. I agree with his assertion that now is the time for LIS professionals to work together, cross-sector and internationally, to develop a unified library policy. Libraries provide access to culture, resources for lifelong learning and methods to counteract the most demoralising aspects of current economic and social crises. Gerald pointed out that the problem of legislators not understanding the value of library and information services and their lack of understanding about the difference between print and electronic copyright issues is not just a UK issue, it’s Europe-(if not world)wide. This needs to be addressed and it’s important for librarians to set it high on policymakers’ agendas. An issue he raised that was particularly relevant to my research interests was that a high proportion of children and young people in Europe are illiterate, which means that they can no longer be reached with written information. They are therefore more likely to become (or continue to be) marginalised and unengaged and vulnerable to radicalisation. This is something that libraries are in a key position to tackle.

The focus of the conference this year was on six themes, (skills and professionalism, promotion and advocacy, technologies and access, libraries in the Big Society, digital inclusion and social change, tools and techniques) the majority of which are relevant to the advocacy, campaigning and media work that I do. Tomorrow at the Windows on the World event at the West Yorkshire Playhouse I’ll be talking about the risk to UK public libraries, current legal challenges, what councils are doing in order to implement the cuts imposed on them and the implications these changes have in relation to access, universality, digital inclusion, education and social change.

It was lovely to meet so many people at the conference who knew about Voices for the Library, what we’re doing and why it’s not just important for the public library sector, but for the whole profession. I’m so grateful for the support that we have from so many people within the profession as well as members of the public, authors and other campaign groups. As Ian’s mentioned, we’d really like to get some more contributions from people, whether they’re working in libraries or just using them, to spread the message about the great work that public libraries do. It’s always been one of our key aims, but with all the campaigning against things that needs doing it’s hard to keep up the advocacy message for things. Please write to us at with anything you’d like to share.

CILIP Yorkshire and Humber / Career Development Group AGM

I gave a talk at the CILIP Y&H / CDG AGM in Keighley on Tuesday. Here are the slides – fairly cryptic as usual but there are some nice quotes and pictures from Hay Festival in there.

It was great to meet so many members I’ve not had the opportunity to meet before, both new and otherwise professional. We talked about public libraries, changes to CILIP as an organisation, and the need to promote librarianship as a valid and valuable profession. It all reminded me that there’s a lot of history to the struggles we’re dealing with, which of course are complex and varied. A lot of people have been tackling a lot of issues as best they can for a very long time. The problems are nothing new, but I think the ways in which we do it as individuals and as a profession are and increasingly will be. Just don’t ask me how (yet) 🙂


Here’s a lovely picture of organiser Daniel presenting Carly Miller, Jenny Owens and me with thank you eggs and honey!

Windows on the World: Keeping Them Open

I’ve been invited to speak at a free public event in Leeds next month, which I really hope people will come along to. It should be very interesting and will tie together some themes that I think are very important but are often overlooked. I’m going to get cracking on my paper soon – yep, actually writing a script for this one!

Windows on the World: Keeping Them Open. The prospects for public service broadcasting, libraries and arts

Saturday 16 July, 2011 at 2pm at The Congreve Room, West Yorkshire Playhouse, Quarry Hill, Leeds LS2 7UP

Public meeting, all welcome, admission free

Refreshments from 1.45pm

Since the Government’s Comprehensive Spending Review of October 2010 the future looks uncertain for publicly funded forms of cultural expression, information and entertainment. Libraries, theatres, radio and TV offer us a series of windows on the world, a means of connecting with others and a space for debate. Are these spaces and resources now at risk?

Chair: Judith Stamper, Deputy Head, Institute of Communications Studies, University of Leeds, BBC Journalist and former Presenter BBC Look North;

Lauren Smith, Founding member of the national libraries advocacy group Voices for the Library and co-ordinator of the Save Doncaster Libraries campaign;

Sheena Wrigley, General Director and Joint Chief Executive, West Yorkshire Playhouse;

Garry Lyons has written extensively for theatre as well as for radio and television, with his BBC2 drama-documentary Britain’s first suicide bombers attracting a Prix Europa nomination in 2007;

Sylvia Harvey, Visiting Professor in Broadcasting Policy, University of Leeds, Visiting Fellow, London School of Economics, Trustee, Voice of the Listener.

Voice of the Listener and Viewer (VLV) is an independent, not-for-profit association working for quality, diversity and editorial independence in broadcasting. It has no political, commercial or sectarian affiliations, and is the only national organization speaking for listeners, viewers and new media users on the full range of broadcasting issues. Further information can be found at:

The event is also supported by the Institute of Communications Studies, University of Leeds

For further information please contact: Sylvia Harvey (Mob): 0788-155-4126 or Bob Usherwood 0114-236-8356.

Public Libraries, Social Media and News Media

I gave a lecture to students on the Public Libraries module of Sheffield’s MA Librarianship course yesterday. Slides, and the gist of what I said (or wish I’d said!) below:

Introduction and Aims

Voices for the Library came about because a group of librarians and information professionals from a wide range of backgrounds and age groups had a common cause – standing up for public libraries. This involves the following aims:

1. Share positive stories from public libraries and librarians across the country.
2. Provide factual information about library usage in the UK.
3. Provide spokespeople for the media from a variety of different public libraries
4. Be a voice for communities and individuals to speak out about why they value their public libraries.
5. Support local campaigns to save libraries where it is apparent that the local council has not properly considered the impact of cuts to library services.

A lot of the work we do involves setting the record straight when news about libraries is presented inaccurately, expressing the role and value of libraries and communicating with local, national and international journalists. Web 2.0 and social media has played a key part in achieving our aims and helping us to create, shape and report news.

We have a duty to take back the narrative. We’re librarians, library and information studies students – we’re the experts. We’ve learnt the hard way that we can’t put our trust in politicians and count on them to represent what we want or provide what we need. There are issues of deprofessionalisation and a lack of voice of professionals in all kinds of decision-making processes. For example, Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, current school and NHS reforms. There are serious issues with communication, agendas (hidden and not-so), and getting the voices of those who best understand the issues heard in the media.

Much of what we did in the first couple of months was about getting ourselves out there, letting people know that we existed and why.  But it quickly became about communicating in different directions, at different levels, and communicating different messages depending on the other groups involved. For example, newspaper journalists wanted to be provided with real life stories, policy makers wanted to know facts and figures, the economic benefits etc. Specialist magazines wanted to know about how  library cuts affect their area, and commissioned us to  write articles about adult learning, employability etc., or asked about the impact that cuts would have on their readers, for example classic car enthusiasts. It’s possible to research into those areas and often it’s a solo effort, but for us time is limited – we all have jobs. We’re also not necessarily experts in all those areas – but someone on twitter often is, or can help put us in touch with the right resources.


We use social media to get input from the public, including campaigners, around the country. The input takes different forms, all of which are useful in different ways.

  • Statements of support
    Help to get the message out there about Voices, who we are, what we do, why we’re different, which legitimises the campaign. We’ll spot celebrities online if they’ve just tweeted something about libraries or something vaguely related – and ask them for support through statements, guest blog posts, retweets etc. Lauren Laverne, Chris Addison, Josie Long, Rebecca Front and Robin Ince to name but a few have all helped out.
  • Stories and anecdotes
    Make good content for the website – they’re genuine, heartfelt, qualitative accounts of why libraries are important. It might not make those holding the purse-strings change their mind yet, but these can be used in case studies at a later date, as good content for journalists etc. Even the media seems to be coming to understand ways in which what libraries do as preventative measures can help save money along the line e.g. employment support, health information, preventing antisocial behaviour, improving wellbeing, supporting the elderly.
  • Photos
    Flickr submissions to the Voices for the Library pool – these have been used by journalists for news websites, in CILIP publications etc. Every attribution gets  us a little better known.
  • Fundraising
    We’ve just made ‘save our libraries’ ribbons available to campaigns – not to individuals because it’s too time-consuming to deal with orders. This is mostly to spread the word, but also hope it will help with cost of transport to places like Hay Festival, annual save our libraries day planning etc. Transactions will be dealt with online and advertising is taking place through social media.
  • Useful links
    We can’t always locate everything on the internet that’s of use – the #savelibraries tag is incredibly useful for finding blog posts or videos etc. that mention libraries, and when cross-tagged with other things it ties libraries into the wider picture.
  • Evidence for legal cases
    Campaign for the Book launched a legal challenge against DCMS. We were asked to collect evidence from local campaigns and did this through twitter and facebook – we received hundreds of emails relating to about 50 local authorities. Although the national case has been suspended, the same law firm is now using the evidence gathered to challenge individual councils where it appears they have not made decisions lawfully.
  • Opinions and ideas
    We sometimes ask what people think we should be doing and how we could improve things. The point of public libraries is that they’re there to serve the public, the point of Voices is that we’re there to help libraries keep doing that. Although the campaign isn’t run completely based on public opinion, we care about how we’re doing and don’t want to spread inaccurate messages about how great librarians are even if they don’t do what’s in the public interest.

Ian created a Wordle based on the simple question “what three words would you use to describe what libraries mean to you?” We asked people through twitter and facebook. About 50 people contributed 150+ words. They weren’t necessarily what was expected, and certainly weren’t the words that were being used by the media and councils at the time. It was a simple thing to do, but it’s now been used on the front of the report produced by Suffolk campaigners to challenge the decisions made by Suffolk CC. They’ve since done a u-turn on their decision to divest library services. This doesn’t mean there won’t be closures still, but it shows that work put in by local campaigners can make a difference, and hopefully some of the content and ideas provided by Voices played a part.


We use a lot of free internet stuff because we’re poor and far away from each other, but also because they’re really effective. The major ones are: ,Wordle, PB Works, Flickr ,Youtube, Google Maps, Google fusion tables, Delicious, WordPress, Facebook and Twitter. These help with behind-the-scenes planning work as well as front-of-house things.

  • : pulls links out of Twitter by using a search. Produces a newspaper type page (image) automatically updated and archived… don’t have to miss any news that has been tweeted… just go and look at edition for that day.
  • Saves links to delicious from your Twitter account and any hashtags as delicious tag
  • Twitterfeed – automatically publish any RSS feeds you want to Twitter
  • News articles; using Tweet buttons means you don’t have to retype links,
  • Amend headlines so people know where article is about. No good tweeting a headline like “A village library is closing”. It’s not informative. Can put your own perspective on an article, by wording you use in the tweet
  • Encourage people to get involved and campaign for their local libraries
  • Discuss key issues with others
  • Promote events, local campaigns, consultations
  • RT relevant blog articles
  • RT tweets by other local campaigners
  • Good way to report live on events and keep momentum. On 5th February there were loads of RTs about the events around the country

We have an open facebook page that we share stories through. We update it both manually and automatically. It’s linked up with the Doncaster and Gloucestershire blogs so that when we publish a new blog post it automatically feeds through onto facebook wall, for example. We use notes, wall posts and topics for discussion, sharing news and information. 2,757 people like it so far! There’s also a closed facebook group that’s just for campaigners. It means they’re able to speak privately about issues that we don’t want to make public yet but do need input from other campaigns with. We want it to link communities of users/campaigners and librarians together.


The nature of using so many forms of social media is that they don’t all work as well as each other, especially when some are so new. So far we’ve not had any huge failures of using a particular kind of tool, but we have tried out ideas through twitter etc. that haven’t worked so well. For example, we had an idea to create a ‘wall of shame’ of councillors who had voted for library closures. We asked on twitter and facebook, but there wasn’t enough planning and preliminary research. There wasn’t enough time, the issue was too complex, and we didn’t have a wide enough reach, so received little input. It turned out that not many councillors who had openly said they wanted to cut library budgets were standing in local elections. But, we would be able to improve this next time.


I see it as a success every time an article is published that goes beyond stereotypes, presents factual information, promotes value of libraries, challenges status quo and the assumption that libraries are out of date, not needed etc. It remains to be seen if any libraries will be saved. At the moment it’s too early to tell, and we will never (and should never) be able to attribute it solely to Voices. But it’d ne nice to think we’d helped.

One of the biggest successes so far has been save our libraries day on 5th February. A lot of this was planned using social media, and publicised widely on twitter and facebook. It received national media coverage, with celebrity involvement, such as Lesley Garrett on BBC news in Doncaster. We’re now planning a national annual day (or week).

Media use of Web 2.0

I find it interesting that journalists have been engaging with people through twitter about library issues. Journalists ask questions, try and find people in particular areas, publicise pieces they’ve put together. For example, Hasit Shah who works for BBC Radio 5 Live tweeted about the radio interview I did for Up All Night – he linked to it with #savelibraries hashtag – and reached far more people than I could.

In turn, mainstream media have really picked up on the issue – and are now getting used to talking about it in more depth. Discussions about ebooks, publishers, implications on equality etc. are all quite recent. They find it interesting and valuable to talk to librarians who are informed about the key themes of debate and happy to discuss the pros and cons – none of this is black and white, and librarians don’t try to paint it that way.


There have been some surprises about how people have reacted to Voices campaign. Some librarians see us as going too far, some people accuse us of having ulterior motives. Some reporting is still simplistic and reductive…and we do still have the old stereotypes to deal with. There are also some people who don’t like librarians one bit. I was surprised by how much history there is to deal with, which gets in the way of making anything better sometimes. We’re members of the ‘new’ and ‘old’ generations working together to right whatever wrongs have happened and do away with unhelpful attitudes. Even though our work is evidence-based, reputable, and balanced, and we try to weigh up all situations and report appropriately, some people don’t see it like that. Some people see a progressive agenda as a threat or ulterior motive. If you have a non-conservative (small c) view, people are quick to label you as a communist. This is simplistic and reductive, and seeks to vilify those trying to do good and make improvements. It also opens up the debate about ‘neutrality’ of public libraries. Can they be? Should they be? Have they ever been? Is the concept of equity politically neutral? I don’t think so.

I thought we were making some really good progress with journalists, but others are quick to criticise. Criticisms without constructive suggestions can make you feel a bit angry. But, with all the contact from others in the same boat through social media, it makes you feel a bit better. (Sometimes they even send you pictures of kittens.)

There’s lots of progress to be made and new areas of social media to explore, questions to be asked and answered, articles to be read and written. We’re not finished!