Choosing Privacy for Public Computers in Libraries

Choose Privacy Week, Computers, Encryption, Privacy

By Matt Beckstrom
Systems Manager Librarian, Lewis & Clark Library, Helena, MT
Author, Protecting Patron Privacy:Safe Practices for Public Computers

Most of us offer some kind of public computers for our patrons, and obviously privacy is a concern. What should we be doing for our patrons when it comes to privacy on public computers? What steps can we take?

First of all, we have to remember that we have to work around the fact that privacy is difficult. Especially when we introduce the variable of the patrons. No matter what we do, their behavior on the computer can expose them in ways we cannot stop. If they enter their personal information on a site, or sign up for something, they are giving up their privacy. It is also possible that by over-configuring a computer for privacy, we can prevent the user from being able to access or utilize some resources. There must be a middle ground where we provide a certain level of protection, but not enough to block useful resources.

Anyone who uses a computer is leaving traces of their use all over the computer. Browsing history, lists of files that were used, and application usage are collected and stored on the computer. The most efficient way to deal with the storage of this information, is a PC clearing application like Deep Freeze. These applications will restore the computer to a ‘clean’ state when the computer is rebooted. Any use of the computer between reboots is removed. Instead of a full reboot, other applications can be used to wipe patron use from the computer. CCleaner, a popular file and registry cleaning application, can be scheduled to run at certain times of the day using the Microsoft scheduled task manager. CCleaner will run through the computer and delete any temporary files, or browser traces that are on the computer. Many applications can also be configured to either not store any information, or to remove it when the user is finished. Most Internet browsers can be configured to go into a private browsing mode that will not store any temporary files, or keep a history of the sites visited. Internet Explorer and Microsoft Edge use a mode called InPrivate browsing mode, Chrome uses Incognito mode, and Firefox has private browsing. Applications like Microsoft Word and Excel can be configured to not show a list of the most recently used documents.

One of the biggest concerns with public computers is spyware or viruses that get on the computers. There are many types of spyware applications that will, once they are installed on the computer, begin to collect information about the person using the computer, and transmitting it back to someone on the Internet. Many of these applications can be blocked by making sure your public computers have up-to-date anti-virus software installed. When choosing an anti-virus application, make sure that blocks viruses and spyware. Many will also come with firewall applications built in. These will sometimes interfere with the Microsoft firewall and anti-virus that is installed on the computer by default. It is possible to over-protect a computer by having too many anti-virus or firewall applications installed. Make sure you only have one of each running.

Of course, the biggest concern with privacy on public computers is Internet browsing. With the recent change in Congress regarding the rights that ISP’s have to collect and use private Internet behavior of their customers, the ability to browse the Internet privately and securely is more important.

There are many ways to protect user privacy on the Internet. The quickest would be to install browser plugins that attempt to block advertising and tracking information on pages. Plugins like Privacy Badger from the EFF or do a decent job of blocking tracking cookies or HTML tags. Other plugins like HTTPS Everywhere from the EFF will attempt to force Internet connections to use SSL (Secure Sockets Layer)  in order to prevent the transmission from being intercepted and read. VPNs (Virtual Private Networks) are a great way to protect Internet connections. Installing a VPN on public computers will make the traffic coming from them appear to be coming from somewhere else, and all that traffic is stripped of any identifying information about who is using it, and what they are doing. A VPN subscription will cost some money, but they provide a powerful solution to privacy. The TOR browser is free, and will provide a very high level private browsing experience, but it does come with its downfalls. The TOR browser will encrypt the Internet traffic and route it through nodes on the Internet, each providing their own layer of privacy. These multiple layers of encryption and routing will slow down the connection, and make some types of traffic unusable like video.

While we cannot guarantee privacy on public computers, we can offer our patrons an experience that gives them more protection than they would be getting elsewhere. Using a combination of PC configuration and browser configuration or plugins will go a long way in providing privacy. Of course, do not forget to educate your users on how they can be safe on the Internet!

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