In this day and age, it becomes a sensible precaution for the aspiring Evil Author to take a few extra measures to ensure privacy and discretion in the pursuit of research. Should the hapless outsider discover an Evil Author’s internet queries out of context, for example, the author might be suspected of plotting deeds most foul in the physical world, rather than merely bringing suffering and excitement to the world of their own creation. Such unpleasantness should be avoided, as it only serves as a distraction from precious time which should rightly be spent writing. Fortunately, my dear octopi, endever* and I (GeGi) have decided to compile a few helpful suggestions to aid you in this avoidance.
To begin our list, let us discuss the most basic and sensible of resources: The Public Library. endever*, if you would…?
Indeed, I would! I volunteer at a library, and am just generally Passionate about their existence. I currently live in the jurisdiction of a great/well-funded library system, so I’m definitely lucky – but assuming you aren’t in a country that happens to be in the process of actively defunding its libraries (*pointed cough*), you also may have this kind of awesome resource where you live.
First, let’s just review some basic cool things libraries that can do for you (read the fine print at your local branch to see if they offer these services):
If you want an book that isn’t at your home branch, they can send it there and it will be waiting for you under your name. If you want a book that isn’t even in their system, they can probably do the same thing by sharing books with other cities. Did you find a recommendation via your home Internet research? It might be available to download right now on your E-reader (similarly, they might have a documentary you can stream for free). Are you looking at the shelves and not finding what you need? Try the catalog search: there might be rooms full of closed stacks which they’ll go raid for you if you know what to ask for. There’s also epic reference books available on-site that you can’t check out but can study to your heart’s content within the building. You can probably buy old books they’ve pulled out of circulation for just a dollar or two (which goes back into funding their programs). Now, the best part – if you’ve hit a dead end on your research, or don’t even know where to start, you can visit, call, email, or chat with a reference librarian (possibly 24/7) to get help finding the answers you need. If your specific library system doesn’t offer this, check this international list of library reference chat services to see if you can access one just based on where you live.
Now, my volunteer role at the library is pretty simple and didn’t take much training – but before even beginning training, every volunteer at my local library has to go through an online module specifically about patron privacy and freedom of information laws. I learned a lot! Not every system has this kind of mandatory curriculum for volunteers, but there’s also a lot I’m learning just from being around the librarians I work with. Overall, if you’re concerned about privacy as you go about your Evil Author research, I definitely recommend trusting your library as you go about finding the information you need.
For example, my main job at the library is to check in and shelve holds (items from other library branches that patrons have requested to pick up at our branch), and there’s several little details about even that process that demonstrate my library’s commitment to patron privacy. For one thing, patrons can request that their holds be shelved under a number rather than their name, so that other patrons can’t associate them with the items they’ve requested. Items themselves (organized by the name or number of the person they’re reserved for) are shelved with the spine down, so that the titles are not easily visible to passing patrons. It’s considered best practice that even if I see an item arrive for someone I know, that I don’t take it upon myself to send them an unasked for text message or anything; we wait for the automatic phone/email system to notify them. And it’s not appropriate for me to spontaneously comment on the titles I see patrons checking out; for example, even if I notice a lot of books I love are getting reserved for a certain name, I wouldn’t then say “oh, you read so many great books!” to them if I see them collecting their holds. That draws unnecessary attention to their reading choices and could make them feel uncomfortable. (Of course, a patron can totally initiate a conversation with a librarian about the kinds of books they enjoy; that helps them get awesome recommendations.)
As a volunteer, I’m encouraged to refer all questions from patrons looking for items to one of the reference librarians. This can be as simple as a person asking me “where’s the _____ section?” – because they actually may be looking for a certain book. So I might say “are you looking for anything in particular?”, and if yes, I’ll introduce them to one of the librarians I work with, because that’s exactly their thing. You don’t even have to know the name of a book you want in order to ask a librarian for help; really, what you can approach them with is simply any desire for information. They’ll ask you some questions to get more of a sense of exactly what you’re looking for, and then offer some suggestions as to how you can get access to it. They are honestly trained to not even blink at any kind of request, so please don’t worry that they’re going to say “What?! Why do you need to know THAT?” I will add, however, that in some library branches it can be fairly easy for other patrons to overhear your conversation with a reference librarian; if you’re concerned about that, I’d encourage you to use one of the other options (call/email/chat) for a more private interaction. Alternately, you should feel totally comfortable asking the librarian you’re talking to in person to move the conversation to a more private setting – that option leaves no electronic/paper trail. On another electronic/paper trail note, using library computer stations for your internet research can be useful because it doesn’t connect the content you view to your home IP address.
You’ll want to check how your specific library has decided to handle the details regarding outside requests for your data, but you should know that they’re vehemently committed to protecting you to the greatest extent that they can. They have policies and guidelines about how to handle requests from law enforcement officers and immigration officers if your contact information or check-out history is ever demanded. They avoid creating unnecessary records – I know in my library, even *I* can’t access my own check-out history unless I’ve clicked a little box under my account options that asks them to retain it – and they destroy existing records whenever it doesn’t make sense to keep them. See the American Library Association’s guidelines on this for more information.
At the bottom of the post I’ll leave you an optional addendum on bonus, non-privacy-related library hacks! In the meantime, let’s hand this over to GeGi and ver more tech-knowledgeable ideas on how to keep your evil author research protected.
Thanks, endever* — even I didn’t know some of that, and I practically grew up in my local library! Although it does sound like you have one of the best library systems in our country…
Now, one must turn to one’s computer. I (GeGi) have recently been looking into this, and have begun to use a couple of web browsers designed for privacy. Both are performing quite well so far, and were fairly easy to find and install.
Epic is fast, with a lovely ability to handle lots and lots of open tabs; something I find highly important when researching. The built-in proxy has multiple countries to choose from, and only slowed down loading slightly. Basically, this means you can fool websites into thinking you’re viewing them from a different country; you get to pick the country, and sending the information through the proxy — while slightly bottle-necking for your internet traffic — is still relatively fast. An additional bonus for me is the built-in search engine, which, by not being Google or yahoo!, means I’m getting to corners of the internet less mainstream, with far more interesting results to inspire my writing and world-building.
Comodo IceDragon is pretty much exactly like using Firefox, but without having to track down and install all the privacy plugins myself (although I still added a few more afterward). With things like Adblock Plus, Disable WebRTC, HTTPS Everywhere, NoScript, Privacy Badger, and uBlock Origin, the internet is a far more private place.
If you wish to test your own browser before going to the bother of trying something new, you can do so for several potential areas of privacy weakness at the website panopticlick.. It’s a test designed and run by the Electronic Frontier Foundation (also a diligent resource and front-line for privacy issues on the internet), and it takes only a minute or two. Additionally, this page at github has a good roundup of search engines to consider for their policies on respecting privacy.
Also good to have, a VPN (virtual private network) does something similar to a proxy, but is encrypted and basically offers a stronger level of protection. It’s commonly used to secure unsecured internet connections, bypass government censorship, and get around regional restriction. Not only do VPNs help with privacy, but they also help you gain access to information you might otherwise be denied seeing due to your country of origin. It can be very useful in the pursuit of Evil Authorship, I can assure you! Unfortunately, it can be difficult to find one that actually does what it’s supposed to do in terms of protection. Do your research and self-education before you settle on something. I’ve started looking through That One Privacy Site, which focuses on VPNs and Email.
All of these programs have free versions available for download, and more about them can be found with a quick internet search. Of course, the classic standard of privacy while interneting is still Tor — free software including a browser built for autonomy — but some of the others I’ve mentioned are, shall we say, perhaps more beginner-friendly. And there’s even more out there! Privacy is an important issue to a lot of people; the only ones who don’t like it are the ones who want to spy on you. And whether they’re spying for targeted advertising or for government watch-lists, either way we’d rather not have them looking. For more information about issues I’ve touched on here, a couple good resources and starting points are the Privacy Tools article on Github and the EFF’s Surveillance Self-Defense page.
As Evil Authors, we’re going to have questionable searches on a near-daily basis. That’s simply a fact of the work we do. And it’s simply a fact of the world we live in these days that looking for the kinds of information we need to write our stories means we run the risk of being misunderstood, to potentially harmful and even dangerous results. I joke with my family about accidentally ending up on a no-fly list and therefore not being able to visit them, but the truth is the joke could easily be far too real, and that’s a fear any author — or non-author for that matter — can legitimately have in any country.
Despite the levity with which I began this post, endever* and I both wish only the safest for you, dear octopi and Evil Authors. This is our small contribution towards that sometimes overwhelming goal.
Addendum: some bonus, non-privacy-related library hacks from endever*: The examples of services/policies I list here vary widely between libraries, so be sure to check your own system’s details – this list is just intended to give you an idea of some of the cool things that you might have access to!
You may be able to renew an item virtually infinitely until another patron requests it (I’m pretty sure I’ve had items out for… uh… close to a year? *hides*). And you may be able to check out something like 100 items at a time. If you’re an educator (including a homeschooler) that limit could go up. I’ve heard of librarians allowing special arrangements such as extended check-out periods for people with conditions like agoraphobia that make it difficult to meet due dates. You may not need to actually pay all your fines before being allowed to check out more items – in my system, as long you’ve paid enough to keep the balance below $20, you can keep checking stuff out. In the emergency situations I’ve been hospitalized and thereby racked up huge amounts of fines accidentally, they’ve forgiven those fines – and my local system no longer fines anyone under 18, either, just on principle. There might be free classes (I once got to build my own terrarium, I keep meaning to go in for an introduction to spreadsheets, and I know local authors sometimes host events about writing), free language learning meet-ups, and free tax help for lower-income folks (via a partnership with the AARP). Librarians onsite can answer tons of computer questions, and may host drop-in hours where you can bring in your phone/tablet/E-reader for tech help. My campus library, at least, keeps tons of chargers available for common devices in case you find yourself low on batteries and in need of some borrowed electricity. Having a library card may be able to get you into academic journal databases and online language learning software that you’d otherwise have to pay for. In short: use and enjoy your library! That’s what they’re there for. And, psst – if your government IS trying to defund your libraries (*cough* AMERICA *cough*) – consider contacting your lawmakers on their behalf.