Teaching about privacy and the internet

When I was in high school, I kept a shoe box on the top shelf of my closet.  In that box, I tucked away letters and notes that I had received from various sweethearts, ticket stubs from memorable concerts and movies, and various other “secrets” that I wanted to keep away from the prying eyes of my family.  I wasn’t doing anything illegal, but it was safer to conceal that I had things of sentimental value, that helped mark a memorable time with friends, from my parents.

Adolescence is a time when you begin the process of constructing your identity, figuring out the public and the private self.  I’m not a psychologist, but I imagine it is very important developmentally for teenagers to have their own private space in which they safely explore and figure out for themselves who they are and who they want to become.

In school we help students develop the public side of their identities and, when we are at our best, we encourage them to be the person they want to be.  In school, students do have an expectation and a right to their own private space, but that area is considerably smaller than what they might enjoy at home.  When a student’s behavior arouses a reasonable suspicion that he/she is engaging in harmful activities, the principal or his/her designee can conduct a search of the student’s clothing, bags, locker, and car.  While school administrators may have to conduct searches more frequently than they would like to, this usually doesn’t impact a large segment of the student body.

With the omnipresence of technology in our lives today, we conduct more of our public and private lives online.  How much privacy can we expect?

The love letters of years past are now text messages, tweets, emails, and various other electronic communiques.

The recent scandal involving the Director of the CIA shows us how easy it is for law enforcement to uncover and expose an otherwise lawful, yet inappropriate relationship between two consenting adults.  I don’t mean to editorialize about extra-marital affairs; however, to me the case is important because it reminds us that we have almost no right to privacy on the internet.  If the director of the CIA cannot find a way to communicate privately on the internet, as the ACLU points out, how can any of us reasonably expect to be able to do so?

We can’t.

We can only take advantage of this teachable moment to help our students understand that anything and everything they say or write on the internet can be traced back to them one way or another.  We educators need to help pull back the veil of perceived privacy that we sometimes feel while “lurking” on Twitter or while surfing aimlessly across the waves of the web.  We have to model internet integrity and make sure we post only what we would say or share in a public setting.  By doing this and creating authentic experiences for our students to use and create content on the internet, students will be able to build their public identity on the internet and hopefully understand the need to keep the private stuff in the real shoe box and not in the digital dropbox.

Another thing we can do as educators and as citizens is to raise awareness about Net Neutrality, the Electronic Communications Privacy Act, and the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act.  We can read about and discuss the issue of privacy with our students and have them write (and hopefully blog) about.  We can encourage students to engage in writing letters to legislators asking them to consider revising outdated laws and adopting new measure to guarantee a fair amount of online privacy.  We can push them to read and discuss the “Terms of Use” policies of the websites they use most to understand what rights they retain and which they yield when mindlessly clicking the “I agree” box.

Whatever we do, we don’t remain complacent.

I and my student welcome your feedback.

In addition, if any of you have expertise in any of the issues discussed above and you would like to come and have a talk with high school students, you have an open invitation.


Photo Credit:
Bloom, Alan. “Shoe Box Scan NJ.” Shoe Box Scan NJ. Alan Bloom, n.d. Web. 15 Nov. 2012. <http://www.alanbloomproductions.com/ShoeBoxScan.html&gt;.



2 thoughts on “Teaching about privacy and the internet

  1. Nava and Paul Ervin

    Thanks very much Joe! I like your concept of MODELING for our children, setting an example of common sense privacy guidelines… You are right in your perception that our children are benefitting from all guidelines we offer at school and home. Interestingly, we notice both our daughter and son seem to be growing in independence and their questions grow bigger with them!!! They appear to be proud of being older, feel strong about taking charge of their school work, their down time, and their growing choice making food wise : ) and nice to note, they still often seek our protection as they become increasingly independent. I deeply appreciate your bridging so nicely between school and home in interactive, on going communication yielding for us parents a good feeling of mutual working together.
    With respect to the numerous privacy sites not sure I will harry to visit all… feels a bit like mind cluttering… being informed is powerful and yet i am sensing the resistance of having to invest so much time and energy to preserve basic common sense privacy. Balancing has moved from feet to finger tips… thanks again and Happy Thanksgiving!!!

  2. Russ DeMartino

    This was a good post. Unfortunately I don’t think the savyest of adults understand quite how public the interenet really is. Anecdotally, my wife asked me a few weeks ago what I wanted for Christmas and I told her a good pair of black dress shoes for work. She did her customary research and sent me a link to look at some “Allen and Edwards” shoes. I perused the site for a few minutes and moved on.

    Since that day, everytime I open up the internet, there is scrolling or flashing advertisement somewhere on the screen for Allen and Edwards shoes–A brand I had never heard of until she sent me that link. I now believe that everytime I look at my computer screen there are a few sets of eyes inside of it, staring right back at me and taking notes on everything I do.

    I agree we need to apply the “New York Times test” to everything we put on the internet, but we might also want to look a little bit harder at just how invasive the internet technology really is and what it means to personal privacy.

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