Head for the Edge, October 2003
I’ve mentioned in this column before how much I like science fiction’s ability to predict the future, warning us of it perils and teasing us with its pleasures. Spielberg’s movie Minority Report set me thinking about what we should be teaching our students about privacy.
In the movie, the hero is pursued through a shopping area where devices in stores biometrically read his identity and begin tailoring their sales messages directly to him. Using his previous shopping history as a source of data, the merchants are doing the ultimate “target marketing.” Far fetched?
Not really. Billboards that can detect which radio station a car is receiving can change their message to fit that listener’s demographic tastes. (NPR listeners get ads for environmental causes; Limbaugh listeners get ads for assault rifles?) When I log on, Amazon.com recommends titles I may be interested in based on my past purchases. Does it work? My shelf of yet-to-be-read books, many impulsively purchased from Amazon, is sagging from the weight.
“How much do you want others to know about you?” is a question we should be asking our students to ask themselves. It is a question that can only have a personal answer. But it should be an informed answer.
What do we need to teach kids about privacy?
1. Sharing information is a double edged sword. I like it when the website from which I rent DVDs suggests a film to me that I might like. I’ve seen some good flicks I might otherwise have missed. But I am also aware that that knowledge of my tastes allows the site to potentially manipulate me as well. By telling others about ourselves, we are giving them a degree of power over us. Sharing information with marketers about one’s taste in movies, books, video games, or clothing may not be very serious if students understand that this information can in turn be used to persuade them. But students should begin asking themselves who they want to know about their medical, academic, employment, or legal records.
2. There needs to be a balance between privacy and security. There is a good deal of debate right now regarding the Pentagon’s proposed Total Information Awareness program. By collecting vast amounts of information and mining it for patterns, the government believes it can spot and deter terrorism. Critics see it as an Orwellian plot that threatens every American’s privacy. Students need to know that their privacy, especially in schools, is limited for security purposes. Backpacks, lockers, and email can all be searched by school officials.
3. Personal information is not always collected openly. One of the scariest things about information technology is its ability to collect data about a user without the user’s knowledge. Cookies, scripts within webpages, remote monitoring programs, and hidden “spyware” can tell others what places you’ve visited on the web, to whom you send email, and even what programs you run – all unseen. Students need to learn to read privacy policies on websites and understand any school monitoring procedures in place.
4. American citizens have rights to data privacy and the right to see data about oneself. Student data privacy rights are usually carefully delineated by board policy and law. Libraries have their own policies regarding the protection of patron privacy. Can your students answer the following questions:
- Can your parents receive a list of the books you’ve checked out from the media center this year?
- Can your teachers receive a list of websites you’ve visited on a particular day?
- Can your principal get a copy of the emails you’ve sent and received on your school account?
- Does your school sell lists of student names?
- Can you see all your school records, including disciplinary files?
Debate over privacy issues will rage far into the future. The policies shaped by these conversations will have a major impact on the quality of our lives. I can think of few topics of greater importance that should be part of classroom discussions, library lessons, and school policy making. Make it your responsibility to become informed.
And if you’d like to know more, just email me your name and credit card number.