**Disclaimer** The majority of this text was written in 2016 in this blog post. I have added updated information, but what I shared then was even more important today, and so I have reposted it here for Privacy Awareness Week – take time to Reboot Your Privacy!.
When I was nine I had a diary which had a lockable clip on it, which would only open with a special key. I thought it was awesome. My thoughts were completely private – as long as I kept the key secure, no one would be able to access what I had written. Simple times!
For kids today, privacy is a much bigger issue – particularly if they have any interaction online (and really, that’s an awful lot of them). With the move to remote learning in the first months of 2020, that number will have grown even further.
While in 2016, news reports of a website hosting pornographic images of schoolgirls from a minimum of 70 Australian schools brought the topic of privacy into the spotlight, in 2020, the privacy debate has centred around the release of tracking apps which attempt to identify when individuals infected with the Covid-19 virus cross paths with others. What information we choose to keep private and what is shared with and without our knowledge is a highly contentious topic, and as with most things, education and understanding are the best strategies to ensure we maximise our security.
The concept of online privacy is massively complex – and I will freely admit I am no expert. I don’t know many people who are, or if it is even possible to understand it completely. If you are deeply interested in the area, I would definitely direct you towards the work of Patrick Gray, and his Risky Business podcast, and suggest you check out Electronic Frontiers Australia. However, if you are like me, and feel that as a responsible 21st century citizen and as an educator, you should know enough to ensure basic levels of security, then read on!
I’ve blogged before about the importance of secure passwords, but this is just one part of the security puzzle. This video gives a high level overview of the situation:
Even if we password protect our information appropriately, it is still not necessarily safe. This situation is largely (but not totally) because of two reasons. The first, is because even though we may trust our friends and connections with our data, we cannot always trust other humans to be responsible with our data. The second is because of the terms and conditions that we sign when we create an account with many of the major (and minor) social media and other services online. Let’s deal with these one by one.
Privacy and Trust
When we connect with others online, we are granting them tremendous power and responsibility. Being a ‘friend’ on Facebook basically gives that person the key to your online diary, and anything you share with them, they are able to share with others. It is this trust which is often broken in situations where nude photos are published publicly, or when employers may learn something about an employee that it was assumed would remain hidden. In almost all cases, it is better to only share information, images, videos and other data which we would be happy to share publicly. Sharing releases control of data, and once online, it is almost impossible to remove all traces, even if the original is deleted. The ThinkUKnow website is a fabulous resource for teachers and students, and features extensive information on privacy, cybersafety and excellent guidelines outlining the importance of checking the privacy settings on a wide range of different apps. Perhaps some of the adults in the video below could have used this information also!
The concept of online privacy is evolving. While some believe that young people today have no sense of boundaries, are uninformed, and are happy to share every aspect of their life online, research shows that this is not necessarily the case. Young people often demonstrate privacy-protective behaviors, but also have large gaps in their understanding about privacy management at the same time. This suggests that the privacy paradox cannot be attributed solely to either a lack of understanding of or a lack of interest in privacy. Increasingly, it seems that when faced with the complexity of privacy management, many young people (and adults) simply lapse into apathy, feeling powerless to protect their privacy.
This connects to the second reason why our data is not safe, even if we protect it with effective passwords – the terms and conditions of many social media sites often include permission to distribute or collect data which we may not even realise we are sharing.
Although Facebook has, since 2016 when this article was published, supposedly updated the controls users have over their privacy, it is clear that data is still being collected. Facebook can continue to track your browsing even when logged off unless you turn this feature off, as its Pixel software sends information back each time you access a page with a “Like” or “share” button, or an advertisement sourced from its Atlas network. Despite Mark Zuckerberg’s claims that Facebook will set new standards for privacy, even if this happens, it is not the only player in the market.
So how to we combat this ‘privacy fatigue’ and instil students (and ourselves) with confidence that we can take action to manage our privacy more effectively? Fortunately, there are several ways, and they are quite easy to do.
- Install an ad-blocker: this is a simple extension which may be installed on your web-browser to do what it says – block ads. Aside from removing ads which may be annoying or which may detract from the experience of the website, it also removes the chance that you might accidently click on an ad and unknowingly install spyware or other nasties.In fact, many ads don’t even need to be clicked on to have cookies or other malware installed, thereby providing advertisers with personal information you may not wish to share. Of course, the other side of the coin is that this advertising is what funds some websites, and blocking ads reduces income – however, clever sites are recognising the frustration over the top and intrusive advertising may cause users, and are creating strategies to balance both the need to fund free sites and the need to respect the user. Debate about which ad-blocker to use is fierce, and I would encourage you to read an article such as this guide to be fully informed. I personally use Adblock Plus, and have never had a problem, but each context is different, so be an informed user!
- Track your usage and see just ‘who shares what’: There is a Mozilla extension called Lightbeam which tracks your movements online and graphically displays not only the sites you visit, but also those sites which are collecting data from your visit. You can also use Firefox’s own enhanced tracking protection.
These are just some of the trackers blocked when I clicked on the front page of Buzzfeed:
- Turn off your location tracker on your mobile: Sometimes, you want to ‘check in’ and share your location with the world (like when you have just entered a suite in a 5 star hotel in a luxury destination, and want to brag!!). However, location trackers on your mobile phone make it very easy for anyone to see where you have been, and to work out your daily routine. It doesn’t take any digital skill to do this – check out this simple app which just requires a Twitter or Instagram handle to display a detailed map of an individual’s travels (and a good way to check if your children have their location settings turned on also!!).
Bluetooth is also used to track your movements – as evidenced by its use in the Covid-19 tracking apps. When not in the midst of a global pandemic, consider switching it off too when you are not using it, to minimise the amount of data you are ‘broadcasting’ without even realising.
- Take the time to improve your overall knowledge of privacy management: As I said earlier, the best way to make sure you maximise your privacy online is to be informed and educated. Teaching Privacy is an excellent site for anyone from age 13 and up. While it has extensive teaching material and really well developed lessons that I would encourage every teacher to check out, it also makes for worthwhile browsing just for self education. It’s ten principles for online privacy (below) are great guidelines for anyone of any age.
So don’t be overwhelmed by privacy management – see it as a challenge! This is an aspect of digital literacy that is important to us all, even if we have nothing particular to hide – because our privacy is precious, and we will definitely miss it if we lose it.