learning-center > FAQ on Browser Privacy Changes and Library Resource Access

Last updated: 17 Feb 2023

This FAQ is intended for librarians and IT departments. It will also be useful for librarians communicating with their end-users, whether that is a student, faculty, or practitioner of any kind. It is intended for the scholarly library ecosystem to advise, explain, and provide some suggestions on how to recognize if an access issue stems from this specific browser problem. This FAQ can also be helpful when working with technical staff to problem-solve a solution for your library and institutional needs. When you hear a patron say, “I can’t access this content,” we hope this FAQ may provide clues for you to use, to either rule this issue “in” as the cause; or, to rule it “out.” It is a sneaky thing, this browser problem. https://seamlessaccess.org/posts/2021-07-06-browserchanges/



Question 1: What is this “accessing remote content” issue?

  • Answer 1: Browser vendors are beginning to signal changes they plan to make that will bolster user privacy but could also cause unintended disruption when your library end-users access content on the internet. In short, they will get error messages that prevent them from accessing content both on and off campus.

Question 2: Who is doing this?

  • Answer 2: All major browser vendors (Apple, Google, and Mozilla being the top three) are working towards their interpretation of a more privacy-preserving web experience. That said, Apple, via their Safari browser as well as any other browser on their mobile device operating systems, is currently at the forefront of these changes. The changes that Apple and the other browser vendors are making are global in reach and impact; there is no one government, company, or sector that controls these changes.

Question 3: Why are the vendors doing this? Why is this happening?

  • Answer 3: Companies like Apple (Safari browser), Google (Chrome browser) and Mozilla (Firefox browser) are responding to various policies and regulations like the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and others around the world regarding the protection of user privacy. These policies and regulations impact all possible ways an individual may be tracked across the web, including via their IP address and through information written into the browser’s local storage. For an industry like scholarly publishers and vendors, the IP address is recognized and leveraged as the common means of authorizing access to scholarly resources. Thus, there is the potential for unintended massive disruption as the browser technology and processes that underpin IP authentication and SeamlessAccess are changing dramatically.

Question 4: Will these changes impact federated authentication?

  • Answer 4: Several pieces of functionality in web browsers enable the features that support federated authentication. This includes browser cookies and other information written into browser local storage. Cookies come in various types, but what they all have in common is that they put a small bit of data in a user’s web browser. That data can serve many different purposes: it can let a site know whether or not a user is logged in, it can be used to store information that will allow a service to personalize services in some manner, and, most infamously, it can be used to track what sites a user visits as they surf the web. From the browser’s perspective, though, one cookie looks just like the next.

The browser cannot tell the difference between a cookie that lets a service know the user is authenticated from a cookie that allows an advertiser network to track a user around the web. The sticking point is not that the information is written into the browser, but whether or not there are restrictions on what sites can then read that information. If any site can read the information in the browser, that’s known as cross-origin information. This is functionality that enables services like SeamlessAccess, logins to companies that have more than one domain name (e.g., microsoft.com and sharepoint.com are both Microsoft domains), and, unfortunately, advertising services that track a user across the web.

Question 5: How will I know if my library and my users have encountered this browser issue?

  • Answer 5: Your user may try to access an article online and find their access restricted; the actual error message will vary depending on the publisher and/or campus network configuration. This is a key indicator that the issue may be an “access remote content issue” originating from a browser change for protecting user-privacy.

Question 6: What browsers are affected now?

  • Answer 6: If your user is using Safari and an iCloud+ subscriber, the browser may be blocking access to content. On June 7, 2021 during Apple’s Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC) conference, Apple announced that subscribers to their iCloud+ service will have their IP address obfuscated from website operators. This is a strong signal regarding Apple’s thoughts on how to protect privacy, and this kind of feature will almost certainly make its way to the rest of Apple’s products (like Safari).

Question 7: My user is using Safari and I am using Chrome, and they can’t access the article and I can. Why?

  • Answer 7: The user may be running into new privacy protections that Apple added. Google, with its Chrome browser, has not yet implemented these protections. Thus you can get to the article and the user cannot do so.

Question 8: What devices and operating systems are affected?

  • Answer 8: The software that is affected includes: Web browsers on iOS or iPadOS (including Safari, Chrome, and others), Safari 15 on MacOS Apple for iCloud+ Plus subscribers [Note that this is subject to change as new versions of the popular web browsers are released.]

Question 9: Why now, why this change?

  • Answer 9: All the browser vendors feel they must prevent unsanctioned tracking of users across the Internet. Countries and regions are holding browser vendors accountable and browser vendors are trying to respond to the criticisms. This is part of a larger Internet trend towards protecting user privacy and identifying and removing all the ways the user can be tracked, including IP addresses, cross-origin cookies, and more. Unfortunately, this directly impacts scholarly work and access to library resources.

Question 10: When did this trend and impact start?

  • Answer 10: This started in March of 2020 with Apple and Safari. By July 2021, in certain circumstances, Apple began to obfuscate IP addresses. Google on the other hand, made their initial plan to block cross-origin cookies in 2019 but have delayed the universal implementation of the most significant of these changes until 2023.

Question 11: How are users tracked in a browser?

  • Answer 11: A user can be tracked via a variety of mechanisms. Individually, cross-origin cookies and IP addresses are one simple way to track a user, and so are on the short list for browser vendors to remediate. More complicated, but not uncommon, is something called “browser fingerprinting” - the fonts, plug-ins, add-ons, browser version, IP address, and so on form a remarkably unique method of identifying a specific user.

There are other ways involving even more complicated technologies such as bounce tracking and link decoration; these mechanisms are also heavily used by authentication and authorization protocols as well as by trackers, and so will take longer for the browser vendors to figure out how to remediate.

Question 12: When might a user find browser access issues? E.g. the “remote access issues”

  • Answer 12: Users may experience these issues when using devices with IP authentication to access library resources, such as online articles, ebooks, databases, and research and learning platforms from publishers and vendors. Depending on a user’s location on or off campus, they may encounter different browser behavior.

Question 13: Will this impact SeamlessAccess?

  • Answer 13: The SeamlessAccess call-to-action button reads the user’s browser local storage for information on what identity provider (IdP) the user has chosen in the past. If the information exists and is readable, then the button populates itself with the name of the last institution the user chose (no other information is stored about the user). As support for cross-origin data is removed by browser vendors, SeamlessAccess will no longer be able to populate the button. Instead, the user will have to search for their IdP every time they go to a new service provider. Today, this limited behavior, where the button does not populate with the user’s choice of IdP, is visible in Safari. As other browser vendors increase the restrictions on cross-origin data, they will also find themselves limited in terms of what the call-to-action button will do. The experience will vary depending on how exactly the publisher has implemented their integration with SeamlessAccess.

Question 14: Is this impacting only scholarly resources?

  • Answer 14: The changes underway definitely impact scholarly resources, but they also impact all other resources on the web. However, there may be a disproportionate impact on scholarly resources, as most other consumer or industry vendor access methods stopped using IP authentication a long time ago. IP authentication was NEVER intentionally meant to be used for scholarly access the way it currently is utilized in the scholarly marketplace. Nonetheless, IP authentication became so easy and effective for scholarly access that libraries, publishers and vendors have not moved on to other more privacy-preserving access methods. For example, others use single sign-on or other SAML methods and do not depend on IP-based authorization.

Question 15: What is the solution for my library? Will federated authentication be needed for my library and resource access?

  • Answer 15: Right now, there are few good answers. Many sites and services direct users away from the more restrictive browsers such as Safari, a temporary solution at best. If there is any possibility to direct your campus and your vendors towards SAML-based federated authentication, that is the best long-term strategy we know of. Other mitigations may be developed over time as more organizations engage in developing the standards for browser behavior.

Question 16: What other solutions are there I could consider for my library and discuss with my IT department?

  • Answer 15: Many in higher education use SAML and do not depend on IP address and cross-origin cookies. SAML is “Security Assertion Markup Language,” an open standard that allows identity providers (IdP) to pass authorization credentials to service providers (SP). What that jargon means is that users can use one set of credentials to log into many different websites. It’s much simpler to manage one login per user than it is to manage separate logins to email, customer relationship management (CRM) software, Active Directory, etc. SAML transactions use Extensible Markup Language (XML) for standardized communications between the identity provider and service providers. SAML is the link between the authentication of a user’s identity and the authorization to use a service.

SAML-based federated authentication is a well-established remote authentication mechanism, and there are many vendors and consultants available to assist a campus in implementing it for your environment.

Question 17: What do librarians need to do about this?

  • Answer 17: To provide the user with immediate support, Librarians can suggest that the user switch to a different browser or disable Private Relay on the Apple device. In the long-term librarians should start a conversation with organizational stakeholders and start planning to move away from IP authentication access methods.

To get started librarians should consider sharing this FAQ and the following two resources with their IT department: 1) Apple announcement https://www.apple.com/newsroom/2021/06/apple-advances-its-privacy-leadership-with-ios-15-ipados-15-macos-monterey-and-watchos-8/ and 2) SeamlessAccess blog post, “Web browsers, privacy, and federated identity” https://seamlessaccess.org/posts/2021-07-06-browserchanges/. Start a discussion with your IT, your administration, library committee or others to create awareness and a sense of urgency. Then discuss what it would take for your library to move to using a ‘federated authentication’ access method for patrons’ to access your library resources.

Question 18: Will this last, what is the future of this trend?

  • Answer 18: The expectation is that this is just the start of a process of several years that will see fundamental changes in how users can access resources on the web. This issue is not going away. Librarians need to be knowledgeable about it to better participate in discussions and implement possible technological solutions for access to library resources.

Question 19: Should I be worried about this for my library and my end-users?

  • Answer 19: Yes, but talking and learning about it helps! With enough attention and persistence and administrative support, librarians can find solutions with their institution, partners, and IT departments. If you are proactive and knowledgeable about it, you can lessen the potential negative impact for your library.

Question 20: I do not think I can move to Federated Authentication, what can I do?

  • Answer 20: If you do not have the budget or technical ability to move to federated authentication as a solo library, consider working with your local consortia or professional group. National and international organizations also exist that may be able to provide advice and mind-share on the problems. Examples of such organizations include: Educause, ALA Core, and FIM4L. There may be ways that consortia and these groups can help, advise, and perhaps share costs for federated authentication and other SAML solutions.

Question 21: Are there any immediate solutions my library or campus can take that will allow IP address authorization to continue to work?

Question 22: This FAQ is interesting, and I have questions and would like to share my thoughts. How can I do that?

  • Answer 22: To get started, please review the information, blog and Learning Center on the SeamlessAccess website https://seamlessaccess.org/. Sign-up to the SeamlessAccess mailing list on the home page to stay informed of developments.

SeamlessAccess does not have resources to provide 1:1 support for libraries and librarians. We suggest talking with colleagues, your IT department and vendors. Your various library groups may also be able to organize further discussions or support.

It may also be useful for your library to know that SeamlessAccess as an organization is currently working in an advocacy-role with the major browser vendors. It is “advocating” for the needs of the scholarly industry, libraries, and service providers to help browser vendors understand your unique needs regarding access to scholarly resources.