Washington DC's Public Library Will Teach People How to Avoid the NSA

It’s wonderfully subversive for a government institution to teach people how to use Tor in a series called “Orwellian America.”

​Later this month, the Washington DC Public Library will teach residents how to use the internet anonymization tool Tor as part of a 10 day series designed to shed light on government surveillance, transparency, and personal privacy.

A series called "Orwellian America," held by a publicly funded entity mere minutes from a Congress and administration that ​allowed the NSA's surveillance programs to spin wildly out of control certainly seems subversive. But the library says it wasn't really intended that way.

"We realize it can be a controversial topic, but we tried to make the program as balanced as possible," Catherine Gees, a library associate who helped put together the program, told me. "We reached out to NSA and other federal agencies, and with a lot of them, we didn't get response."

The Library seems like a natural place for this

The series will open with a screening of The Internet's Own Boya documentary about Aaron Swartz, the brains behind RSS, Creative Commons, and an influential partner at Reddit who committed suicide while under a widely criticized indictment for federal data theft.

There will also be marathon readings of George Orwell's 1984, a ​lesson in how to use the anonymity service Tor to protect your privacy online, a lecture about how to access government data online, a lecture about how to track campaign finances, internet safety classes for teens, and screenings of the Frontline documentary United States of Secrets, about the ​Edward Snowden leaks.

Another lecture will teach people basic online security (such as two-step authentication) and will include live hacking demonstrations. A closing event at the Spy Museum will discuss the ongoing tension between transparency and national security.

The series has been in the planning stages for roughly a year by Gees and her colleagues, Emily Menchal and Myra Remigio-Leonard, but it wasn't until the library secured a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services that it was able to put the full program together.

"We wanted to take a look at 1984 because it's very relevant, and recently, people keep comparing everything to it, sometimes not in the most accurate way," Gees said. "We wanted a way to get people to come to the library, and it seems as though they're concerned about personal privacy and security online. People were asking questions like 'What is Wikileaks?' 'Who is Edward Snowden?' and 'How does wiretapping work?'"

Gees added that maybe it's not so ironic for a library to be teaching people this stuff.

"Libraries have always been concerned about privacy rights. It seems like a natural place for this," she said. "I just wish we were able to bring in more voices from the other side of the conversation."