What I’ve been teaching: Privacy

This spring I’ve been teaching a course on the politics of privacy. I first taught it as a summer school course two years ago, when I had half a dozen students and ran it as a seminar. It was a lot of fun, and I got to try out unfamiliar readings and unusual assignments. The following spring TheHusband taught it as a lecture course, and now this year it was my turn again (we plan to alternate).

It’s a pretty interdisciplinary syllabus. We start with sociological readings from the 1960s on the social construction of the self and the self in public, because you can’t understand the private sphere without thinking about the public sphere. The reading list includes everything from law articles and legal cases (including Romanceland’s own Carolyn Jewel) to economics articles to current EU, Canadian, and US statutes on privacy. And also Gawker and Reddit (yes, your tuition dollars are being spent on teachers who send their students off to read stories on Reddit. I’m sorry). We finish up by watching a couple of recent documentaries, 2014’s The Internet’s Own Boy (about Aaron Swartz) and CitizenFour (the 2015 Oscar winner about Eric Snowden, now on HBO, GO WATCH IT EVERYBODY).

I tell the students at the beginning of the class that teaching this class is in many ways a selfish act on my part. Those of you who followed my VM blog know that I’m very interested in the digital divide and uneven access to technology. My more than two decades online, especially the last decade and the explosion of social media, has made me think a lot about the intersection of technology and privacy. But as a certified member of The Olds, my take on these issues is very different from that of my students. Policies and laws are passed and implemented by people who are closer to my age than theirs, but they are the ones who have grown up in a connected world and will never have the option to leave it.

One of the truisms I see a lot in online discussions is that millenials “don’t worry about privacy.” That is not my experience at all. Some of them are blasé but many are not. Granted, I have a self-selected sample of millenials who are more likely to care about these issues. But even within this group, while attitudes vary about how much privacy they want or expect, they’re not ignorant about the benefits and drawbacks.

That said, they’re not always fully aware of how many ways privacy is not in their control, and one of the things I try to get across to them is an understanding of what kind of data are out there. They do an assignment they call “internet self-stalking,” in which they go to computers that they don’t usually use and surf via a variety of browsers to see how much information there is about them online, and where that information might have come from. Some of what they discover is expected, but other results are not. The students are often surprised by how much information is put online by other people. If they have commonplace names or share names with more famous people then they are safer, because their results will be lost among the rest. But if they have even slightly unusual names, they’ll show up.

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