California Library Creates Online Privacy Tool

San José Public Library’s new Virtual Privacy Lab uses gaming concept to help users become more “privacy literate”

January 4, 2016

San José (Calif.) Public Library’s privacy toolkit creates a personalized list of links, tips, and tutorials that reflect a user’s online privacy preferences.
San José (Calif.) Public Library’s privacy toolkit creates a personalized list of links, tips, and tutorials that reflect a user’s online privacy preferences.

The internet doesn’t have to be scary. That’s the message from Erin Berman, innovations manager at San José (Calif.) Public Library (SJPL), and Jon Worona, division manager for technology and innovation at SJPL. American Libraries invited Berman and Worona to discuss the library’s new Virtual Privacy Lab, an interactive site that teaches people about online privacy. Created in partnership with the Teaching Privacy team at the Berkeley, California–based nonprofit International Computer Science Institute and with $35,000 from the Knight Foundation, the lab helps users of all ages become more “privacy literate” using a gaming concept. Some libraries, such as Denver Public Library, have linked to the Virtual Privacy Lab to help patrons learn more about internet security.

Most people are unaware of the digital trail they leave behind, how the information is being used, and how to control what is shared on the internet. With more of this data being viewed and collected by third parties, it’s difficult to feel safe and confident with every click.

To help create confident online interactions, San José Public Library (SJPL) developed the Virtual Privacy Lab, a free, encrypted online learning tool for all libraries to share with patrons. The lab’s content was also professionally translated in Spanish and Vietnamese to make it accessible to our communities.

In the Virtual Privacy Lab’s “construction zone,” patrons can anonymously answer a few agree/disagree questions—such as “how do you use social media?” or “what do you know about your information footprint?” The site dynamically generates a personalized toolkit, including links, tips, and resources tailored specifically to a person’s preferences and needs. For instance, the toolkit will tell you what privacy settings you may want to review or adjust and will also provide how-to guides.

In addition, users have the option to read in-depth articles and information about what SJPL and other libraries do to protect their privacy, while the tl;dr (“too long; didn’t read”) crowd may skip to the “quick tools” page. Users can then venture forth with a curated list of apps, browser extensions, and websites.

SJPL’s primary goal was to empower users with the knowledge and courage to use the internet without fear. People have different definitions of privacy and a wide range of needs and desires for their online personas. A small business may want to share openly and widely, while an individual may want to remain as anonymous as possible. There is no one-size-fits-all privacy path. However, with the appropriate tools, anyone may become privacy literate and log on, browse, and share—with confidence.

Because privacy can be an intimidating topic, SJPL looked for ways to present the information to people in a nonthreatening, fun, and engaging way. Research and testing led to a platform game for the first iteration, similar in style to the classic Mario Bros. games.

With a prototype grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, SJPL’s innovations unit and web team—in partnership with students from San José State University’s game development club and the teaching privacy team at International Computer Science Institute (ICSI)—created a concept for a stellar educational platform game.

While fully building out a complete game will take more time, the rich content from ICSI and interactive principles honed in extensive user testing and both paper and digital prototyping yielded an interactive and dynamic web resource ready for sharing. Aligning with ICSI’s aim “to empower K–12 students and college undergrads in making informed choices about privacy,” the power of in-depth online privacy knowledge may be shared with all public library users.

Collecting information and building the personalized privacy toolkit makes users stronger and more confident. They decide for themselves how to share personal information online—individual needs, wants, and desires generate a customized operating manual for the connected world.

While many factors may seem beyond our control, the ability to share and connect safely and smartly should be within everyone’s power.