The importance of teaching online privacy at the college

Almost everyone has experienced it — the unsettling advertisement, that thing that you Googled to buy for your mom on her birthday, skirting the edge of your vision, accompanied by suggestions for different wrapping paper, birthday cards, etc. Look closely at how much and how often “the internet” (to put it collectively) infers all kinds of minutiae about our daily lives. It really is quite startling, and it raises the question – is it still possible to freely navigate the internet?

I don’t mean to suggest any overt loss of free will. The internet is still a great place to view or do whatever one wants, for better or worse. The above question is really twofold: firstly, to what extent is the commodification of our personal data used to influence our actions online? And secondly, is it still possible to be online at all and maintain any sense of privacy? The answer to both is that it depends on whether or not we know what is happening with our data and how much of it we allow to be taken.

Data is itself a product. Tracking people’s online activity gives profitable insights into all types of consumer information, allowing corporations to build detailed digital profiles on potential customers. Because there are so few regulations that limit this type of profiling, corporations have every incentive to collect as much information as possible, which they use to both predict and influence every action we take online. Targeted advertisements and personalized search engine results are just two of the many ways in which our experience online is molded by forces other than our own choices. This commodification of data has led many to demand a greater degree of “informed consent” — the knowledge that a service is collecting our data should be made explicit, not hidden in a bloated terms of use agreement.

The very existence of digital privacy is being called into question.

Leave it to Apple to bring a related conversation into some light. Its bout with the FBI proves that debates over online privacy extend far beyond questions of whether or not a consumer’s consent is “informed.” The very existence of digital privacy is being called into question. The FBI’s demands show a desire for indiscriminate access to information on any iPhone, not just the one owned by the San Bernardino shooters. It’s one thing to treat the iPhone of a known terrorist differently than other iPhones – but why are ours being treated as if they belonged to terrorists? Does this say anything about how our government is beginning to view us, its citizens?

Walking around campus, I notice that almost everyone has a smartphone, and iPhones make up the overwhelming majority of that population. As members of one of the country’s oldest institutions, that ultimately serves the United States itself, should we be offended?

Those who are disinterested, or feel as if they have no stake in this debate, take note of this (rather extreme) example: How many times has something less-than-marketable occurred with a phone on hand? The likely non-zero number should be cause for concern. For a period of several years, intelligence agencies had it in their capacity to remotely operate your smartphone. Turning on the microphone or camera was, at any given time, a possibility. It is not unreasonable, then, to assume that beyond your location, or the websites you visit, even the content of the messages you send – beyond all of this, that every word you speak can be heard at any given moment, so long as a smartphone is nearby. I made a promise to myself to never use tired clichés, especially ones that evoke images from certain popular works of dystopia – but the clichés practically write themselves. Is there any sign worse than that?

If the College’s mission truly is to mold us into informed citizens and consumers, an excellent place for it to start would be with this issue of data security and online privacy.

The association of freedom and privacy is nothing new, and one hardly needs to explain that these two concepts are, in many ways, dependent on one another. When our privacy is threatened, our freedom is threatened. Even so, our most basic Fourth Amendment rights are not protected by the outdated Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1986.

If the College’s mission truly is to mold us into informed citizens and consumers, an excellent place for it to start would be with this issue of data security and online privacy. Even a brief session during orientation would be an improvement; if not to teach us how to be fully secure in our data, then simply to let us know that it is not, by itself, fully secure. An even better option, as suggested by Tracy Mitrano — an academic dean at the University of Massachusetts Cybersecurity Certificate Programs — would be a GER course in information literacy. Only then could the College say it produces truly informed citizens.

Email Thomas Briggs at


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