Protecting Your Digital Data Privacy

Posted by Susan Brooks-Young on May 6, 2017

PrivacyRecently, I went to a local jeweler to get a ring repaired. The sales associate used her tablet device to complete a work order for me. When she requested my address and phone number, I didn’t give it a second thought. Then she asked for my birth date. When I questioned why she needed to know, she shrugged and mumbled something about sending me a birthday card. I decided not to provide that information. Next she asked for my wedding anniversary date, glanced up at me and said, “Oh, I guess you won’t want to tell me that either.” I smiled and shook my head. Not a huge deal, but it did get me thinking about all the times we give people personal information without asking why it’s needed or how it might end up being used.

We live in a society where the boundaries of privacy are pushed every day. Educators are increasingly aware of the need to safeguard student data privacy, but what about protecting our own? Given that Congress recently repealed the online privacy rules designed to limit the ability of Internet service providers (ISPs) to share or sell various kinds of customer data as well as the requirement that ISPs notify customers when a data breach takes place, responsibility for protecting personal data now appears to lie squarely with individual consumers. What can we do to protect our own private information?

Passive vs. Active Data Collection

There are two general methods used to glean data from individuals. The first is called passive data collection. Passive data collection may involve use of slick online tools that collect and record data without an individual’s knowledge, but it can also be as simple as a customer service representative or data entry clerk entering information gathered during a phone call or office visit into some type of customer data base. As a result, it’s the rare person who has no online presence these days.

Here are a couple of examples of passive data collection. Do you make online purchases? Virtual shoppers seldom realize that they are leaving a trail of data in their wake as they browse for a new dining room set or an article of clothing. Using cookies or other sophisticated programming strategies enables merchants to compile a wealth of information about individual shoppers based on which items are reviewed, how much time is spent looking at each item, how the site is navigated, etc. In turn, this information is shared with other online platforms people frequently visit. This is what makes it possible to go from virtual window shopping to Facebook only to discover a personal newsfeed is now filled with ads featuring the very same items reviewed elsewhere just a few minutes earlier.  Even individuals who don’t own Internet-connected devices don’t get off scot-free because personal information about them is being stored online by someone else—medical records, school records, and virtually all public records for example. Hopefully medical and school records aren’t publicly available, but if they are online, they are vulnerable. In addition, online aggregators pull public records from a myriad of resources to create readily accessible individual profiles that include very personal information. Check out Intelius  for a taste of what I’m referring to.

Active data collection requires a little more cooperation on the part of an individual. This type of data collection happens when someone completes a registration form to download a white paper or responds to a survey from an airline or hotel about a recent trip. Unfortunately, most people don’t realize that by filling out a product review or questionnaire they are providing valuable marketing data to whoever requested the information and whoever they may opt to sell the information to. For example, have you ever logged into a site like Amazon.com or Netflix and seen recommendations for products or movies you might enjoy based on previous searches and purchases or rentals? These data are used to build a personal profile for you and may be shared across platforms to aggregate information you’ve provided in various locations. Much of these data are easily manipulated by changing the information in the Preferences area of an account. Try it! And speaking of profiles, every social media platform and most online stores ask users to complete lengthy profiles under the guise of making it easier for other like-minded users to find you. That may be the case, but it’s also true that the more complete the profile, the more marketable your information becomes.

What Can You Do?

There are various steps you can take to help protect your privacy. For instance, avoid leaving an easy-to-follow online data trail by using private browser windows or learn how to block cookies and location data. Natasha Stokes offers tips on how to browse anonymously. Her suggestions range from employing a web browser’s incognito feature (easy to do and most browsers offer this capability in Privacy) to using something called a VPN or virtual private network which is more complicated and usually requires a subscription fee.

Another way you can protect personal data is to visit one or more data aggregators to read what’s been recorded there about you. These website collect public information about individuals, pulling it all together to create personal profiles. Some are quite extensive and invasive, but there are nearly always ways to have the information removed. Visit piplintelius, and spokeo as a start. Some of these sites will remove your data on request. Others direct you to do to the data source. For instance, I was surprised to see that my LinkedIn profile is a source of a great deal of the data showing up in these aggregated summaries.

Think about the data requested when any type of purchase is made. Ask why a company needs your zip code or birth date before providing that information. The day after I gave the jeweler my phone number for the work order, I received a sales call from them, but also learned they failed to call about another repair that will need to be made soon and which could have been done at the same time, had I been notified! Decide if a warranty registration or chance to win a raffle merits handing over personal data. Pass on responding to surveys or requests for product reviews, no matter how persistent the merchant may be. Maximize privacy settings on social media accounts.

The Circle, a 2013 book written by Dave Eggers and now a movie starring Tom Hanks and Emma Watson, is a dystopian tale about technology, transparency, and privacy in a society where “secrets are lies” and “privacy is theft.” In this narrative, the fight between good and evil boils down to whether or not there is a need for privacy in the digital age. I’m not suggesting that readers should back away from using the Internet, but it’s time for everyone to think about what data are being collected, how, and why. Only then will individuals be in a position to start taking back control of their personal information.

 

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Recognizing Lies: Redefining Digital Literacy

Posted by Susan Brooks-Young on April 20, 2017

truth or lie arrowsWhat is your take on these recent news stories?

A Chicago janitor made himself a millionaire 20 times over by taking out life insurance policies on teenagers and then murdering them to collect on the policies. (April 2017)

Mark Zuckerberg said that he is “disgusted with social media” and he plans to leave Facebook in the near future. (March 2017)

NBC’s ‘Saturday Night Live’ has been cancelled thanks to low ratings. (March 2017)

None of these stories is true, but each was widely distributed across social media platforms in recent months. Does it matter to the rest of the nation if a murderous custodian is rampaging through Chicago, if Zuckerberg is ready to wash his hands of Facebook, or if SNL is being cancelled? Probably not, unless your job is to encourage tourism in Chicago or you are a stockholder in Facebook or NBC. However, other lies-disguised-as-news articles that may make a difference are flooding social media outlets daily.  Such articles are written specifically to influence readers’ thinking about an array of important issues, and  people whose primary news sources are Facebook, Twitter, or similar platforms may make decisions about these matters based on distortions of the truth or outright lies.

Take the U.S. 2016 election as an example. Pyotr Levashov, an infamous Russian spammer, was recently arrested and accused of using the Internet as a vehicle for manipulating the November election . He’s just one of many. Senator Mark Warner (D-VA), vice-chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, says that up to 1000 Russian ‘Internet trolls’ worked to prejudice the U.S. election by publishing lies-disguised-as-news. At this point we don’t know how much influence these articles ultimately have on readers, but the surge in deliberate use of misinformation has spotlighted the limitations of Americans’ skill set when it comes to differentiating between fact and fiction in media.

What are our options for turning this around? Daniel J. Levitin, author of Weaponized Lies: How to Think Critically in the Post-Truth Era (2017), says that educators need to step up right away to address this problem. “We have apparently failed to teach our children what constitutes evidence and how to evaluate it.” He acknowledges that misinformation has been around for a very long time, but is concerned that increased access to all sorts of deceptive materials coupled with our lack of ability to effectively scrutinize these items makes the need for direct instruction of these skills more evident than ever.

There is no quick fix for this. Yes, articles are popping up all over the Internet that offer tips for deciding if information is accurate.  There’s nothing wrong with sharing this information with colleagues and students, but for the long haul, it’s going to take more than a quick brush-up on rudimentary review strategies to fix this problem. It’s going to require taking time to teach students—and ourselves—to slow down a bit and look at information through a more critical lens.

Levitin suggests we can learn to identify misinformation by focusing on three key areas:

  • the ability to evaluate information presented in numerical form
  • identifying faulty arguments offered verbally or in print
  • using the principles of the scientific method to differentiate between fact and fiction.

Commonly accepted definitions of digital literacy typically refer to students’ abilities to find, evaluate, and use information. Now we need to get serious about what that means. Weaponized Lies offers an excellent foundation for educators who want to deepen their understanding of what’s required to think more critically about the waves of information washing over us all. I urge educators to read it. Then, armed with this information, we can make better decisions about how to bring these skills into classrooms.

Some additional resources you may want to explore.

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Future Ready Learning: The new national ed tech plan

Posted by Susan Brooks-Young on June 24, 2016

Cover of Future Ready Learning planThe first National Education Technology Plan, Getting American Students Ready for the 21st Century: Meeting the Technology Literacy Challenge, was published in 1996. This is noteworthy because prior to the release of this plan, there was little incentive for schools or other education-related institutions to invest much in the way of time or resources into developing instructional technology plans. The first national plan was built on four goals:

  1. Professional development for teachers
  2. Teacher and student classroom access to up-to-date hardware
  3. Internet connectivity for every classroom
  4. Access to digital learning materials

This early document became a catalyst for the American public to change its thinking regarding the impact technology might have on instruction. The next three plans—published in 2000, 2004, and 2010—incorporated these goals and introduced additional topics including assessment, leadership, integrated data systems, productivity, and funding. However, the 1996 plan is held up as having had the greatest impact on K-12 education—probably because federal funding for education technology was made available in conjunction with the plan’s release. Now, twenty year later, the US Department of Education has released the fifth National Educational Technology Plan.

Entitled Future Ready Learning: Reimagining the Role of Technology in Education, this latest plan incorporates five focus areas. They are:

  1. Learning—Engaging and Empowering Learning through Technology
  2. Teaching—Teaching With Technology
  3. Leadership—Creating a Culture and Conditions for Innovation and Change
  4. Assessment—Measuring for Learning
  5. Infrastructure—Enabling Access and Effective Use

These five areas support expansion of topics included in previous plans, but also allow for conversations not included in earlier documents. For example, the first focus area (Learning) features a discussion about something called the digital use divide. This is an access gap that’s created when some students’ use of technology is limited to consuming existing content while others are encouraged to use technology to support their own learning by creating content. The digital use divide has been recognized for quite some time, but not referred to specifically in prior plans.

A new twist on digital divide issues is broached in the fifth focus area (Infrastructure). In this case, it’s the need for students to have access to high-speed Internet at school and at home. Educators know that schools often struggle to provide reliable high-speed connectivity, but it’s important to remember that more than one-half of low-income students under the age of 10 don’t have any Internet access at home and even more have inadequate access. We’ve told ourselves that these students can use smartphones or get online at a friend’s home or the local library, but it’s just not the same as high-speed connectivity in every home.

And finally, the importance of leadership is heavily emphasized in this plan. This emphasis is tied directly to a related national initiative called Future Ready Schools, which promotes transformation of teaching and learning through access to—and effective use of—technology. In order to provide these kinds of teaching and learning environments, district (and site) leaders must be fully engaged in their planning and implementation. The TICAL project is a regional partner of Future Ready Schools, providing assistance to education leaders in and outside of California.

Based on the fact that previous plans have impacted design and implementation of instructional technology programs throughout the U.S. and it’s likely that this new plan will also influence future developments in education technology.  I urge you to read and use the ideas presented in the plan to broaden and update the discussion about the role of technology in education, specifically within your school or district. You may also want to watch TICAL’s Quick Take on the 2016 National Education Technology Plan.

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Use Infographics to Tell Your Story

Posted by Susan Brooks-Young on March 26, 2016

Infographic about why infographics workMembers of the media are more than happy to share tales about what’s wrong with education. This reality makes it even more important for education leaders to share their positive school stories far and wide on a regular basis. In a recent post on this blog, Arkansas TICAL cadre member Susan Gilley wrote about how to use a Google Doc in lieu of a traditional Web page to keep parents and community members up-to-date on events and other school news. Infographics are another web-based tool school leaders can use to quickly and clearly share stories with members of their school community.

You’ve probably seen infographics in newspapers, magazines, or even online. Designed for readers who want to get as much information as quickly as possible, these documents pack a walloping amount of material into a few graphics and minimal text. The idea behind infographics isn’t new—in fact, this kind of visual representation has been around for hundreds of years. But it’s only been recently that free and low-cost tools that are easy enough for almost anyone to use have become widely available.

Not just for numbers anymore

Originally, infographics were used to display quantitative—or measurable—data. This made infographics a great tool for making high level reports more accessible, but recently this has changed. As the public has embraced this format for sharing information, it’s become commonplace for infographics to represent qualitative data, things that can be observed but not measured. This shift in format makes infographics even more valuable for educators.

Recently I’ve taught two online classes for school leaders. Each course includes an activity in which participants identify information they need to share on campus or in their community and then use an online tool to create an infographic that displays the material graphically. Invariably this activity is identified as one of the most useful in the course. Class members develop infographics designed to explain policies, describe instructional programs, share assessment data, and more. Here are a few examples of infographics from the Internet that were created to explain something relevant to education:

Jump in and create

The most effective way for administrators to learn how to design infographics is to jump right in and create a few. There are several websites that offer free accounts and allow users to begin with templates that can be modified for new purposes. Then, with some practice, you can strike out to create infographics completely on your own. Here are four websites that are popular among educators.

  • Infogr.am (https://infogr.am): The free version of this web-based infographic tool is the most basic of the sites mentioned here—limited to 10 infographics and 10 uploaded images—but that may be a plus for users new to designing infographics. If you decide you’d like to access more features, you can contact Infogr.am regarding education pricing or try out one of the other sites listed here.
  • Easel.ly (http://www.easel.ly/): Offering free and pro accounts ($3/month, special education pricing available), Easel.ly users drag-and-drop elements to create infographics. Free accounts offer 60 images and 10 fonts, but users may upload their own images. Tools for adding shapes, arrows, and charts are available to all users. Start a new infographic from scratch or work with one of the free templates provided. The Easel.ly blog offers tips and tricks for creating infographics.
  • Piktochart (http://piktochart.com/): Piktochart is similar to Easel.ly in that it is web-based and provides a drag-and-drop interface. Some features like Charts seem to be more intuitive in Picktochart, but overall, the two sites are comparable in terms of ease-of-use. There are free and subscription accounts with special rates available for educators.
  • Canva (canva.com/): Use the drag-and-drop features of Canva to create your own infographics or other graphic displays such as posters and photo collages. Developed as a teaching tool, the site also provides tutorials. Canva works on the web and there is an iPad app. Free and paid options are available.
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Cyber Vigilantism and Public Shaming—A Brief Overview for School Leaders

Posted by Susan Brooks-Young on December 10, 2015

Cyber vigilantism: “…Online actions that are oriented toward monitoring the actions of others. It refers to individuals or groups that take grassroots action, rather than work through regional or national justice systems.” Techopedia (http://bit.ly/1SR5zKN)

A few days after the recent bombings in Paris, I heard a radio report about a 27-year-old man who had severe shrapnel injuries caused by one of the explosions that occurred outside the Stade de France. In the confusion when he was rushed to a nearby hospital, no one noticed his passport fall to the sidewalk. It was discovered a little while later, and within 24 hours members of the media posted online messages erroneously identifying him by name as a suspected terrorist. Why? It’s highly likely that the answer is because he is an Egyptian national. In reality, he’d traveled to Paris the week before with his mother and brother, seeking cancer treatment for his brother. He was simply waiting in line to purchase a ticket for the soccer game that had just started.

This is just the latest in a growing number of online incidents where members of the media as well as private citizens take the law into their own hands by using social media to post public accusations aimed at individuals or groups. This is a form of cyber vigilantism called public shaming. The problem is that it doesn’t matter if these denunciations are accurate or not—the end result is nearly always the same. Accusers use a worldwide forum to try and convict perceived wrong-doers with no due process. Guilty or not, their targets suffer consequences that are almost always disproportionate to the supposed crime.

Members of the general public are well aware of the harm that can be caused by students who cyber bully one another and there is broad consensus that cyber stalking and cyber harassment are unacceptable behaviors. But little has been done to curtail various types of cyber vigilantism, including public shaming. This is due at least in part to the fact that people who engage in acts of cyber vigilantism like public shaming believe they are doing a good thing and often receive a lot of public support.

Historic picture of two men in stocks
Public shaming c. 1900

Consider the public shaming this past summer directed toward a Minnesota dentist who killed a lion that had been lured from a game preserve in Zimbabwe for purposes of the hunt. Public outrage ran so high—thousands of people called for instant retribution—that within days the dentist, his family, and the employees at his dental office were all paying a high price for what he had done. He and his family became targets of death threats and were forced into hiding. His employees’ livelihood was imperiled when he had to close his dental practice due to threats. His second home in another state was vandalized. Later it was determined that the dentist had in fact not broken any laws. He did not know that the men coordinating the hunt were behaving illegally. But by then, the damage had been done.

How does this relate to educators and students? We encourage students to stand up for what’s right and hopefully model this behavior for them. But we need to insure that they don’t cross the line into cyber vigilantism in the process. Since members of the school community are most likely to have personal experience with public shaming, it’s a natural starting point for a study of cyber vigilantism. Here are three approaches for beginning conversations with students (and adults) about public shaming.

Begin the conversation

  1. Learn what it means to be a responsible member of an online community. By the age of 10, more than 50% of children in the U.S. are using some type of social media and most parents admit they don’t have a clue about ways to help their children learn appropriate online behavior. This is something we can address at school with both students and adults in the course of teaching digital citizenship skills. An important aspect of this concept is use of good judgment in online interactions as well as showing empathy toward others.
  2. Learn how to protect yourself online. This includes long-recognized strategies such as not sharing personal information online, thinking before posting, refraining from engaging with people who are verbally abusive online, and recognizing that social media may not be the best forum for discussions about serious or emotionally charged issues.
  3. Confront public shaming head-on through discussions and role-playing. Stocks, pillories, and other formerly sanctioned types of punishment based on public shaming fell out of favor many years ago when people realized how barbaric and ineffective these practices actually are. However, the Internet makes it all too easy to shame individuals and groups online. Some experts say that online public shaming is rising in popularity not because it is an effective punishment, but because it appeals to online crowds that delight in bullying others. Adults have difficulty refraining from this type of behavior, so it’s no surprise that students become eager participants. You can find multiple examples of public shaming by using the key words public shaming for an Internet search. Share and discuss these with teachers and students.

Educators must regularly modify or update their definition of what it means to be a good digital citizen as new, questionable behaviors show up on line. Public shaming is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to cyber vigilantism, but it’s a good place to begin exploring this recent type of online behavior.

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