Guest post: Research methodology and findings from MLIS students’ privacy study

Editor’s note: below is a guest post from Paige Sundstrom, an awesome MLIS student who worked with a group of other students at the University of Washington investigated privacy practices and needs in libraries, at both the individual and institutional level. We were impressed with the work of these students and asked Paige to write up a summary of the project in order to amplify the work of these students and encourage other MLIS students to build on this research. Are you a library science student focusing on privacy? Want to hear more about the research project these UW students conducted? Please get in touch!

Hi! I’m Paige — a first year MLIS student at the University of Washington’s iSchool. Last quarter I worked with three fantastic ladies (Alexa, Alexandra, and Stephanie <3 <3 <3) on a research project on Internet privacy and am excited to share my/our experience with all of you!

During our first quarter of library school, we took a research class where we learned about different research methods, how to locate and evaluate secondary research, and how to conduct, analyze, and present different types of primary research. Throughout the quarter my classmates and I would be learning and applying these methods toward a final group research project on a topic of our choosing.

There were three class assignments: literature review, data collection, and final project/presentation. During the literature review process, I was listening to an episode of the Circulating Ideas podcast that interviewed Alison Macrina; she talked about the Library Freedom Project and the importance of Internet privacy skills and education in libraries. I was hooked and became increasingly interested in her work as well as the potential research aspects I could cover in my class’ upcoming assignments. I reached out to Alison a few days later, asking if she had ideas my group and I could explore. Alison went above and beyond in terms of interest in my group’s project, giving advice, feedback, and ideas at all stages of our research process.

In an effort to understand the current Internet privacy landscape through a library-focused lens, we investigated Internet privacy at both the individual and institutional levels. We focused our research on the current recommendations for privacy “best practices,” institutional privacy policy documents, and the actual practices and attitudes of individuals. To better understand individual attitudes and practices, we conducted interviews with a library patron and two library professionals; created a survey instrument to understand the practices of academic librarians and MLIS students; observed a graduate level class on Internet privacy and security; and analyzed the Internet privacy policies of the Seattle Public Library, University of Washington Libraries, and the University of Washington iSchool.

Through our data collection, we learned that there are often gaps between individuals’ level of concern and actual practices regarding Internet privacy (read: high levels of concern but low levels of action!). In order to help the general public understand their own Internet privacy practices, we created a privacy-assessment-tool-to-print that gauges individual actions toward Internet privacy and offers recommendations based on the individual’s “score.” The recommendations are not one-size fits all but are targeted to users depending on their current Internet habits and privacy needs. Our hope was that the self-assessment tool and the easy-to-implement recommendations would close the gap between concern and action regarding Internet privacy. Before turning the self-assessment tool in, we had it tested by a couple privacy experts, friends, and family and made changes to the tool’s questions and vocabulary based on the responses we received. We also made the assessment tool accessible both online and in print so that it could be used by a wider range of users.

From the self-assessment tool we created an online personality test. The online quiz is a more familiar, digestible assessment that also provides Internet privacy recommendations and educational sources, and based on their answers, each user is assigned one of three types of “privacy warrior.” The result and goal of this work is that a wider, more diverse population of Internet users will have the most comprehensible tools and literature they need to protect their Internet privacy in an accessible, easy-to-understand package. Our thought too was that users could start with the quiz and once knowing a little more about their privacy threats, would be more likely to engage with the longer, more complex self-assessment tool.

We presented our findings and distributed a physical version of the self-assessment tool to our class and professor. As we explained our research questions, methodology, and findings, we asked our classmates to take the nine question personality quiz, hoping to use their results as a way to facilitate discussion after the presentation.

We received positive responses from our classmates: a few asked for clarification about the safety of different browsers, some asked for suggestions on creating effective passwords/phrases, and others wanted to know more about password managers. We were not only able to answer their questions on the spot, but also point to the recommendations made on their quiz results and the self-assessment tool for further information. Many of our classmates participated in the survey we sent out earlier in the quarter, so they seemed to understand that their privacy is threatened but had yet to act on protecting themselves.

The project was also beneficial for us as library school students. We had the opportunity to observe and learn about intellectual freedom outside of the classroom, define what the term means for us, and apply the knowledge in other courses. More importantly, we discovered how vital it is to understand intellectual freedom’s relation to library patron privacy, create detailed policies, and educate library staff to guarantee that patrons have the opportunity to follow safe practices.