Home > Resources for Library Staff > Designing a Patron Focused Privacy Policy Framework > Privacy at Public Computers

Privacy at Public Computers

On public computers, patrons face privacy risks online and offline. Remind patrons to keep their private information close, lock their computer if they need to step away, and completely sign out when they are done. While there are risks to using public computers and public wifi, sometimes this may be the only option available to patrons. 

Key Topics  

Installing session management systems 

Adding session management systems will delete all personal information saved during a patron’s session and is a way to keep patrons’ information secure, even if individuals are not able to do so themselves. 

Encouraging patrons not to share their private information with library staff

Library staff are often seen as people who can be trusted; this often means that patrons are willing to give staff much of their personal information if it means they can get the help they need. This can lead to uncomfortable situations for the library staff (such as patrons sharing their private information loudly in the library) and is a risky privacy behavior in a public space. 

Computer organization in the library

How public computers are organized in the physical environment of the library can have a big impact on how private computers are for patrons. This extends to other digital equipment in libraries like printers and scanners. 

Using public copiers, printers, and scanners

Using the copier or printer at the library is a convenient resource for the community, but it is important that patrons are aware that these resources are public and that it is important that they promptly pick up their printed materials and not leave their materials (like their driver’s license or social security card) at the copier or scanner. In addition, libraries should ensure that patron’s data is not stored on these resources. 

Recommended Actions

If your library does not currently have a session management system, consider getting one. If this isn’t an option, consider setting up guidelines to routinely delete personal information manually on public computers. 

Set guidelines and language to address how staff can limit the amount of patron data they are told. 

Ensure that patron data is not stored on library’s digital devices like printers and scanners.

Ensure that the physical space of computers and digital devices are configured for maximum privacy – situate screens so they are not easily visible to major foot traffic, ensure that video and photos are not used in this area and that security cameras are not capturing the screen of a public computer. 

Encourage the use of privacy screens, and encourage patrons to follow acceptable use policies. 

Examples of Library Policy

“…the Library is a public place, and the Library cannot provide private computer workstations or seating areas. At the same time, passersby should respect the privacy of computer users, and computer users should not attempt to show displayed material to passersby.” –Monterey Public Library (California)

Users of Library workstations are asked to use resources appropriately and respect the privacy of others using nearby workstations…The Library PC and print management system, does not retain information on websites visited by customers. The Library reserves the right to limit workstation and printer usage at peak hours or to schedule workstation and printer use in order to accommodate the largest number of customers at specific agencies. –Pratt Library System (Maryland)

The Library does not monitor an individual’s use of the Internet. Computer search stations are programmed to delete the history of a user’s Internet session once the session is ended. The Computer Booking history is deleted every day. –-San Francisco Public Library (California)

Privacy screens are available for Internet computers. However, these screens cannot prevent other library users from seeing what you are viewing. The library’s computers are in a public area. Others may be involuntarily exposed to what you are viewing. The library asks that you remain sensitive to the fact that you are working in a public environment shared by people of all ages. –Multnomah County Public Library (Oregon)

Patrons may “lock” an Internet Station by pressing ctrl+alt+del and selecting “lock computer.” Doing so allows a patron to leave a computer unattended without having his/her privacy compromised. To unlock the computer, the patron must press ctrl+alt+del again and re-enter his/her library card number and password. –Multnomah County Public Library (Oregon)

As a courtesy to others, log off completely when you are finished with your session. This also protects the privacy of your search. To do this, press the Ctrl-Alt-Del keys, select Log Off, then Log Off again. –Multnomah County Public Library (Oregon)