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Rescuing Privacy

Written by David on August 13th, 2014.      0 comments

Image courtesy of Feelart / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Loathe them or laud them the actions of Julian Assange, Chelsea Manning and perhaps more importantly for this article, Edward Snowden have placed digital privacy centre stage in many people's minds, including my own. Whilst many disregard digital privacy as a geo-political issue, CEO double speak or even dismiss it as a fully fledged tin foil hat wearing conspiracy theory. The truth is, as educators, we have to consider our role in our students’ privacy, in terms of their digital futures, especially when looked at through the lens of the digital rights and responsibilities strand of digital citizenship.

At the recent ISTE 2014 conference, delegates were asked to re-think the digital footprint metaphor. A footprint in the sand is an evocative Robinson Crusoe image, but it is also an ephemeral one. A wave can simply wash away the footprint and pristine and unblemished sand is the result. As students develop their digital citizenship skills, this notion of cleansing, forgetting and renewing is not helpful. The Internet, as they say, never forgets. Therefore, delegates at ISTE 2014 were encouraged to regard the digital trail we all leave and in particular our students' trails, as a personal digital tattoo. This metaphor is powerful and ties in really well with my concerns regarding privacy.

I don't think it is too strong to say that as educators we have a moral responsibility to ensure that we are not inadvertently adding to the digital tattoo of our students through our own actions in class. The potential for e-Learning to engage students in their learning and at the same time enhance their learning potential is well documented. To facilitate this learning potential, the Internet is awash with 'free' tools to help teachers. I am often asked, "How come Internet companies can afford to give their resources away for free, how do they make their money?" I am sure it is something that we have all considered.

The truth is that what we share as a result of the sign up process is the gold the companies are after. We give away far more than we receive. I have dubbed this, the "colonisation of privacy." Just like indigenous peoples at the hands of the explorers and colonists of the European Enlightenment, we are being subjugated for the Information Age's digital equivalent of glass beads and blankets. The growth of big data, the imminent explosion of the ‘Internet of things’ and the pervasive, always on, connected and GPS tethered world of mobile technology is making it easier for others to know our associations, preferences and location and cross referencing them to make predictions about our next purchases and place adverts accordingly.

If all of this information harvesting, inference analysis and proximity tracking only resulted in targeted adverts on our screens, then the stock price of filtration companies globally would currently be enjoying

a stratospheric increase in value and our screens would happily block the adverts! Sadly this is not the case. Our data is being sold. The Internet giants spend inordinate amounts of money creating a goofy, cuddly or slick corporate persona to make their consumers feel like they belong, whilst the reality is that as listed companies they only serve their shareholders. The treasure trove they manage is our data, our student's privacy.

Corporations rise and corporations fall. For those of you who had MySpace accounts, ask yourself, where is that data now? Who owns it and for what end? The answer is Justin Timberlake. Will Facebook exist in 10 years time? Will it be the domain of Mark Zuckerberg by then? Will there be a boardroom coup as there was with Steve Jobs? Will there be a hostile take over by another Internet giant, waiting in the wings, who knows? But what is certain, the data we share with each of the services, accounts and corporations we sign up to will move with the money. As we tire of tools, we move away from them but the act of signing up meant, individually, we gifted control of our personal information. In effect, on a daily basis we individually curate and update information about ourselves, that they own.

On Vimeo there is an excellent movie available for rent called "Terms and Conditions May Apply." It is worth the money and time to watch, I recommend that it is used as part of a PD session on Digital Citizenship.

Google and Facebook have been in the news lately and for all the wrong reasons, Google has been caught data mining the content of student e-mails from its GAFE programme,  despite promising not to. The lolly jar was just too tempting for them not to, and who regulates them?

Facebook has been conducting experiments on its users and justifies their actions by saying everyone agrees to this in the terms and conditions  And all the while corporations and governments  are logging, monitoring and archiving our tweets, phone calls, texts, images, etc and claiming that this is not an invasion of privacy because algorithms and not humans are accessing this data. In effect they are not breaking the laws of privacy because the laws of privacy were written in an age before big data, before the Internet.  At best the corporations and governments are being mealy mouthed, playing a legal sleight of hand.

And all the while we are willingly using these tools, devising strategies to integrate them into our learning programmes to enhance the learning opportunities for our students. The more we do, the more we weave our students into the fabric of the Internet and create that indelible digital tattoo. And we should continue to use the tools, but we should continue with our eyes wide open. We have to be less gullible and use more guile when dealing with the Internet giants. We should take more care to use our own mis-information strategies to get what we want out of the tools, whilst not compromising the privacy of the students in our care. If we think more about the contract that we have with our students in the terms of their rights and our responsibilities to protect/uphold those rights under digital citizenship, then we will be actively ensuring that as far as possible our actions will not be compromising the privacy of the students in our care.

Digital Citizenship:

Digital Rights and Responsibilities
Right to Privacy: Citizens have the right to prevent external sources from disseminating or making public, private information that identifies specific citizens

Taken from:


It is not too late to start to be more pro-active about protecting the privacy of our students, but do not delay. In ten years time, when the landscape of the Internet has changed irrevocably and the notion of privacy has become a quaint nostalgic notion, it will not be against the doors of the Internet giants that our former students come knocking on, it will be ours…




David has been a specialist in the field of elearning for over 12 years. He has presented on elearning at conferences in Europe, Australia and New Zealand. His consultancy work includes education and business clients. READ MORE


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