Students Dig Up Dirt to Learn about Internet Safety

Students are dangerously unaware of the privacy implications of social networks.

Many of my students, for example, are stunned when I give them the facts: 87% of Americans can be positively identified from their ZIP codes, dates of birth, and genders. Add residence type and marital status, and you easily surpass a 90% likelihood of identifying someone.

Yet students routinely post this information and much more to the web via a variety of social media applications.

When I voice concerns about internet safety to students, their teenage sense of invincibility keeps them from truly comprehending the impact of an inappropriate entry on a personal blog, social network, or Twitter account. The idea that such actions could adversely affect them when applying for jobs, running for elected office, or even trying to get a date in college seems difficult for them to imagine. To make the learning stick, I knew I needed to connect this lesson to a real-life situation. The question in my mind was: “How?”

Privacy vs. Security

I developed a module for my Intro to Computer Technology class that seems to do the job well. The point of the lesson is to teach students how to appropriately share information when using social media. First, we review lesson vocabulary and watch a 40-minute documentary called No Place To Hide narrated by the late news broadcaster Peter Jennings. The video details privacy issues balanced against collective security. I use the film to introduce the concepts of privacy and anonymity and discuss students’ views on them.

Then the real fun starts. We discuss the idea that online data can be pieced together to create a fairly complete picture of an individual. This is legal and practiced routinely by companies marketing their products and services.

Data Mining the Teacher

Next we data mine. I begin by introducing my students to a list of useful search tools for personal information that I have bookmarked on Delicious. We talk about how a data miner can use each tool to find different things and why those are important. I give students 10 minutes to data mine me. They call out possible facts as they find them, and I write them down on the interactive whiteboard, which allows me to perform conceptual grouping later in the exercise. While writing, I do not give any indication of whether the information is true or false.

Then, we examine the information on the board and discuss it. Can they draw conclusions about me? How could they conduct more accurate searches? I give students another 10 minutes to find out more about me. Afterward, I select two pieces of data, one true and one false, and we go through the process of figuring out how the students could determine the validity of each.

This part of the lesson is also very amusing. One class thought I had three wives, and many of my students are convinced I went to high school in a state I have never visited. One other thing I like about this assignment is that I get to learn exactly what data is available about me. This year, a speeding ticket from 2001 popped up!

Vetting the Facts

I understand that this lesson freaks out some adults. But every piece of information the students find is legally in the public sector. It is actually quite safe and very engaging. After all, what student doesn’t want to dig up the dirt on his or her teacher? After you show them how to vet the facts, they begin to look at every piece of data skeptically.

For this lesson to work, you need to give students the name of a willing adult who has some degree of web presence. I have had a few other teachers volunteer to be data mined, but searches turned up little more than the names of relatives, addresses, and phone numbers due to their limited digital footprints.

Data Mining a Stranger

The next part of the lesson is to allow students to test drive what they’ve learned about privacy and personal data-search tools. This task allows students to apply their own analysis and evaluation skills and learn firsthand the limits of internet privacy. Their assignment, executed in teams of two over two class periods, looks like this:

Browse social networking sites or personal blogs and find a “subject” who meets the following requirements:

• Provides first and last name

• Provides current city and state of residence

• Has a discernible gender

• Provides at least “ballpark” age (adults between the ages of 28 and 40 are best)

• Is not from our town

• Is a complete stranger

• Is an ordinary person

Create an electronic presentation with the following slides:

• Cover (with person’s photo and first name only)

• Basic information from their social network site or blog (what you started with and why you thought it was important)

• What you found from your search results—with sources!

• Conclusion (four deductions/inferences about your person and two issues/concerns with online privacy)

When they finish their data mining, the student teams present their projects to the class. It is amazing to see what students can find out in just a few hours. Relatives, addresses, pictures of houses, housing prices, estimated income (using a few different estimation methods), dates of birth (usually given away by blog entries of their friends), and much more allow students to create fairly robust profiles of their subjects. Of course, some subjects turn out to be difficult to data mine, but there are lessons from them as well, and students must explain them in their work.

Student reactions to this assignment are commonly a mix of fascination, worries about their own online choices, and at times a feeling of “creepiness” when they discover they are much easier to learn about online than they ever imagined.

The final step in this lesson is for us all to walk through the privacy settings on students’ Facebook accounts to evaluate their importance and choose appropriate settings. At this point, they all make changes.

I get more parent compliments on this assignment than on any other. Parents are understandably interested in ensuring their children learn safe online behavior but have little training and experience in exactly how to do that. Many of them even ask for a copy of the recommended privacy settings for their own use.

This assignment makes the topic very real for students, and many of them go on to use these skills in many creative ways, such as helping their parents track down hard-to-find clients!

This lesson is an excellent way to teach higher-order cognitive skills using technology as a medium. And it illustrates that if you are a good digital citizen and make good choices about what you share online, you have nothing to fear. Your online “image” will reflect positively on you.


Datamining list:

No Place to Hide documentary:

—Jesse Morehouse teaches computer science at Pagosa Springs High School in Colorado, USA. He loves seeing students apply what they learn. Data mine him using his professional user ID, techkilljoy.

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