Sunday, March 28, 2010

Privacy matters

I grew up just outside the small village of Wellesley, that only had a population of 500 inhabitants (give or take). Everyone in town knew who I was, and privacy did not exist – especially with the party phone lines. As a result, there is very little difference between my personal and social identities. What you see, is what you get. I feel that this is pretty important when working in a profession that keeps us constantly in the public eye, and teachers are often held to a higher standard of behaviour than the general public whether we are on or off the job. “School districts expect teachers to set a ‘moral’ example” both in person and online in both our personal and professional lives (Johnson, 2008). After several years of traveling the world and attending large Universities that allowed me to blend into the anonymity of larger crowds, I chose to settle in a small town with a similar feel to the one I grew up in. I’ve come to discover that I like knowing the cashier at my grocery store personally and appreciate seeing my students or their parents on the trails mountain biking or sailing with them during weekend races. It may not always be convenient to run into my students while sun tanning at the lake, or enjoying a bonfire with my friends at the river, but I still feel that I don’t have to live separate public and private lives. As Palfrey and Gasser note, digital natives also do not separate their personal and social identities “because these forms of identity exist simultaneously and are so closely linked to one another, Digital Natives almost never distinguish between the online and offline versions of themselves” (2008, p. 20). However, the difference that exists between me and my students is the ability to “recognize the risks associated with online activities [and] the knowledge and tools to mitigate those risks” particularly when it comes to privacy. (Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada).

According to the office of the privacy commissioner of Canada, “about half of Canadian youth say they never read privacy policies on websites they visit and the majority believes that if a website has a privacy policy, the information they provide will not be shared with anyone else”. There is also plenty of other evidence that also suggests “that no one…reads privacy policies or does much to adjust the default settings for online services” ( Palfrey & Gasser, 2008, p. 57). This false sense of security needs to be addressed with students especially when popular networking sites like Facebook change their default settings to openly share all information, as they did in December, making it even harder for people to protect their privacy. Only 35% of the population went out of their way to change their settings, meaning 65% made their material public, probably without even realizing it (Boyd, 2010). I would wager that many of my students are unaware that once information we post about ourselves is part of a public domain, it can be viewed by virtually anyone, and can be shared widely and without our being totally aware of who has access to it and can also be retrieved even after it’s been modified or removed (Stoddart, 2007).

“In many ways our privacy is diminishing, but many people’s relative lack of concern for it may have more to do with a lack of experience in life than a real change in values” (Litwin, 2006). Danah Boyd also supports this notion saying “there is a large myth out there that young people don't care about privacy, and I think that that really needs to be dispelled” (2010). Young people DO care about privacy, but they need more knowledge and education about how social networking sites collect their personal data and use it as a valuable commodity (Stoddart, 2007). “Today’s social sites are a goldmine of information for marketing companies, or political interest groups, and potential employers” and everything that you enter about yourself forms the basis for how people view your “employability, your work ethic, and your other preferences, all without your knowledge or consent, or without even being asked” (Stoddart, 2007). An education based approach is needed to discuss this very important issue, and show students how to set and maintain their privacy settings on the sites they use. It is also critical to encourage them to “think ahead to gauge the consequences of the data they are leaving behind” or the digital footprint that is being formed and teach them how to get unwanted information removed from search engines (Palfrey & Gasser, 2008, p. 53). It is also important that parents and teachers model smart behaviour in their own online contexts and share these with the young adults in their lives.

Here are some very helpful videos that you could use in the classroom to help achieve this:

How to set privacy settings:

I , for one, have happily traded some of my own personal privacy to live and teach in small community that enriches my life with a variety of diversified and rich relationships. I suspect that my students also feel the same way about their online relationships, and hopefully they can be taught to maintain their personal identities with integrity, privacy and safety both in the physical and digital world.


Boyd, Danah. (February 24, 2010). Millennials, media and information. Pew Research Center Publications. Retrieved from:

Johnson, Doug. (June/July 2008). Lighting Lamps. Learning and Leading with Technology. Retrieved from:

Litwin, Rory. (May 22, 2006). The central problem of library 2.0: Privacy. Library juice blog. Retrieved from:

Palfrey, John., & Gasser, Urs. (2008) Born digital: understanding the first generation of digital natives. New York, NY: Basic Books.

Stoddart, Jennifer. (November 7, 2007) “Privacy and Social Networks”. Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada. Retrieved from: