How much should we share online?

audio surveillance zoneI’ve been thinking a lot about this topic recently, and even more so since Simon Finch sent me a link to his excellent article, Privacy is gone, live with it. In the article, Simon talks about managing his digital identity, not so much for self-promotion, but for self-preservation. His view is that if you don’t take charge of your digital identity, it will become defined by what others are saying about you.
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ICT Lessons and internet privacy

Privacy keyboardWhatever you think of the current debate over news that the US Government may have been monitoring the online activity of not only its own citizens but those of other countries too, you have to admit one thing. It provides a great opportunity for ICT teachers everywhere to bring some real-world issues into their lessons, in a very newsy (ie current) way.
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3 ways of maintaining privacy

silhouettesHer Majesty The Queen of England serves as an inspirational role model in terms of personal privacy. Despite being in the public eye for 60 years, she has managed to keep her personal opinions to herself. Almost nobody knows, for example, what her favourite tea is (although Smokey Earl Grey has been hinted at). Yet there are many people who seem to announce to the world each time they blow their nose!

The balance between public and private is, of course, a personal choice, and one made more difficult by other people openly talking about one’s activities or tagging one’s photos, and much standard business advice. But if you do want to be fairly private while maintaining a strong online presence, here are some suggestions. You may like to share and discuss these with students, who are also striving to get this balance correct.

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Facebook Privacy Settings -- Again

Stand by for yet more changes to the way Facebook presents your privacy settings, according to TechCrunch. According to Chris Pirillo,

Facebook currently has nearly 200 different privacy options and 50 privacy settings. It’s no wonder that the average person gets hopelessly lost when trying to figure out where they need to opt-out.

He goes on to say:

Why the hell do they have to opt-out, anyway? Shouldn’t it be more of an opt-IN scenario?

This is absolutely right. In my opinion, it is always better to err on the side of caution and assume that the average person, if asked, would prefer the default position to be privacy rather than non-privacy.

Should your private data be under lock and key?That is why I use a double opt-in system for subscribing to the newsletter, Computers in Classrooms. (That's where, after signing up, you receive an email asking you to confirm that it really was you who completed the form and you really do wish to subscribe.) As far as I'm aware, that is not a legal requirement, but is regarded as good practice. In any case, it seems to me to be safer on legal grounds, given that the advice from the UK's Information Commissioner states:

If challenged, you would need to demonstrate that the subscriber has positively opted in to receiving further information from you.

I do wonder, sometimes, whether privacy means as much to young people as it does to us oldies. But whatever their natural inclinations, they should be aware of their rights, and what their data may be used for.

Privacy rights vary according from country to country, so people really need to be encouraged -- urged, even -- to read the Terms and Conditions and/or Privacy Statement on websites before signing up to something.

Astonishingly, many people don't, as one company happily discovered when, as an April Fool wheeze, it told customers that it legally owned their souls! The news article from the Daily Telegraph states:

Almost 90 per cent of customers agreed to the terms and conditions without reading – either that or they were happy to surrender their souls. The 12 per cent of customers who refused the terms were given a £5 gift voucher.

I was intending to review some software once, when I read on the company's website that the copyright in any article which mentioned the product belonged to the company. That's a ludicrous proposition, of course, and almost certain to be kicked out of court, assuming it ever got that far. However, I took the view that (a) I don't have the time or inclination to engage in a legal tussle, and that (b) I have no desire to publice a company that would make such claims anyway. The result was that the company gained nothing from my use of its software. If you think about it, its legal staff or advisers are working at odds with its marketing staff.

As for what the data might be used for, young people need to realise that, from a marketer's point of view, it is better for people to have to opt out of receiving marketing messages than to have to opt in. That's because most people most of the time take the course of least action: it takes more thought and effort to tick a box than to not tick it.

Issues to discuss with students

  • Are you aware of your legal rights? (Whether you're in a position to enforce or defend them is another matter entirely.)
  • Where would you find out what your legal rights are?
  • Is there a case for requiring all websites to have a Terms and Conditions and/or Privacy page?
  • Should such a page be written in user-friendly language rather than legalese?
  • Does privacy matter?
  • What should the default position be for something like Facebook, given that one could argue that the whole point of it is to enable people to find you easily?

If you want privacy, start by being private

Derek BluntDerek Blunt is ranting again...

Alexis de Tocqueville said:

"In a Democracy, the people get the government they deserve."

Maybe the same applies to privacy? People seem to be upset about the so-called lack of privacy these days, or about private information going missing, but I don't notice people being that worried about such matters in their everyday lives. In a (definitely not) highly scientific survey I witnessed the following on a recent train journey in which the carriage was packed (that is to say, there was a large audience):

  • Someone yawned, and treated us all to a first class view of his tonsils.
  • Someone was discussing his company's business plan with his business partner on his phone at the top of his voice.
  • Someone else was making her personal arrangements at the top of her voice.
  • Someone else let his friend -- and all of us -- know exactly what he told his boss to do with his job.
  • Someone else spent the entire journey putting her make-up on.
  • Someone else picked his nose without bothering with such niceties as a tissue.

Was I just unlucky in my choice of fellow travellers? Or does all this signify a deeper malaise in our society, characterised by an absence of any sense of what is appropriate behaviour in public?

If enough 'ordinary' people don't care about maintaining their privacy and a sense of decorum, why should any government?

Derek Blunt: Blunt by name, blunt by nature.

Delete: The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age

In "Sketches Among The Ruins of My Mind", Philip José Farmer depicts a nightmare scenario in which an object suddenly appears in our skies, and proceeds to remove everyone's memories, four days at a time. Gradually, people regress through their chronological age, ending up drooling like babies, and forgetting all their relationships and skills. As people realise what is happening, they resort to leaving themselves notes and tape recordings by which to tell or remind themselves, on waking up in the morning, what's been going on.

That's an extreme description of what might happen if we were unable, unaided, to remember anything about the last three days, but humankind has always tried to find ways of remembering.

John Mack, in "The Museum of the Mind", looks at how different people in different times and places have used artefacts such as paintings and sculptures to help them remember, a story he tells through the collections in the British Museum.

We have always been afraid of forgetting which, as Viktor Mayer-Schönberger has pointed out in a recent lecture, is the "default setting" for human beings. However, we have now entered a digital age in which this balance between remembering and forgetting has been reversed. In other words, the default setting is now remembering, and we as a society have perfect memory.

A good thing? In some respects, of course; but Mayer-Schönberger fears that we have not fully considered the negative implications of perfect memory.

One of the sources he draws upon is the Argentinian writer, Borges. In “Funes, The Memorious”, Borges provides us with a startlingly accurate insight into what a curse perfect memory would be for an individual person. “Startlingly accurate”? Yes, because decades after he wrote this we have discovered a handful of people in the world who have this rare ability affliction.

And the societal perspective on this?

As Mayer-Schönberger points out, a society that never forgets, may stop forgiving. That unfortunate photo of yourself, or that article you wrote whilst a student, may come back to haunt you years, even decades, later.

Such a situation leads people to self-censor, not just in the here and now, but with one eye on the future. It reminds me of a science fiction story I read in which crime was effectively eradicated because the police used cameras that could go back in time to record actual events instead of people's recollections of them. The story centred on one man's attempt to commit the perfect murder: he had to engineer the situation to cause his victim to have a fatal heart attack, so that when the inevitable cameras came, they would record that he had caused the person no physical harm.

Mayer-Schönberger's suggestion is that we should remember to forget. Technology can help us by prompting us to specify expiration dates for the data we store.

It was a fascinating talk, which you can listen to. I am now in the process of reading his book, 'Delete: The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age', and will review it due course.

In the meantime, perhaps this is a topic that would make for a good discussion in ICT and even Citizenship lessons.

The books mentioned in this article are featured on my Amazon page, where they can be purchased, thereby providing me with a (very) modest additional income. Also mentioned on the page are Fictions, a collection of short stories by Borges that includes Funes, The Memorious. Although nothing to do with ICT in education as such, these stories make you think. And one, The Library of Babel, really does have echoes in the Web 2.0 world, as I described in this article about collaboration.

Also featured is Google Bomb, which covers similar ground, but looked at through the lens of online defamation and cyber-attacks.

Although I have yet to review them, I will say now that these books deserve a central place in your educational technology library.