Why Educators and Parents Need to Pay Attention to Online Tracking and Privacy

May 23, 2012
Kelsey Herron
Common Sense Media
San Francisco, CA
CATEGORIES Common Sense Resources, Digital Citizenship, Digital Literacy, Privacy

As we surf the Web, information is being collected about us. This is a modern phenomenon commonly referred to as “behavioral tracking,” and Mozilla Corporation CEO Gary Kovacs wants to provide the transparency needed to “track the trackers.”

In a new TED Talk, Kovacs shows off Mozilla’s newest add-on, Collusion, which allows users to see the third parties that are tracking their movements across the Web. Kovacs explains that, while all Web tracking is not exactly evil, it is our right to know what data is being collected about us and how it’s being used. Kovacs’ talk also gives us one more reason why citizenship and digital literacy is an integral aspect of education that must be taught in and out of the classroom.

“With every click of the mouse and with every touch of the screen we are like Hansel and Gretel, leaving bread crumbs of our personal information everywhere we travel through the digital woods,” said Kovacs. “I am being stalked across the Web, and why is this happening? Pretty simple: It’s huge business.”

Mozilla’s Collusion provides a simple way to see which sites you’ve navigated to, which sites are following you without your consent, and which sites are completely unknown. The add-on forms a color-coded spider web that depicts, in real time, the interaction between companies and trackers. It also provides an easy way to check which sites are following you, and your children. In his talk, Kovacs discusses his nine-year-old daughter’s Collusion profile, which turns out was filled with third-party trackers after she had been using the Internet for just over two hours.

“This is no longer me being a tech pioneer or a privacy advocate. This is me being a parent,” said Kovacs, who said he was enraged at what the profile depicted.

As Kovacs explains, there are very few regulations and rules mandating companies’ abilities to share our personal information with outside entities. Instead, we must take it upon ourselves to be watchful, and informed. Common Sense Media has several lessons that deal directly with internet privacy and behavioral tracking to help students navigate the Web with a better understanding of just who might be watching.

Follow the Digital Trail” is a lesson for grades K-5 that imparts to children that what they do online can be traced back by strangers. In the lesson, students follow the trails of two fictional animals, make observations about the size and content of each trail, and connect these observations by thinking critically about what information they’d want to leave behind.

The lesson for grades 6-8 targets a common misconception made by pre-teens: that internet privacy isn’t that important. In “What's The Big Deal About Internet Privacy?”, students examine a scenario in which a research company collects information about them. They then discuss any concerns they have, and learn about the kinds of information collected about them as they surf the Web each day. This lesson also encourages students to actively check the privacy policies of the sites they visit.

In “Does it matter who has your data?”, a lesson designed for grades 9-12, students examine the hypothetical Web results of two people with different demographic backgrounds who searched the same topic. Based on their analyses, they then discuss the benefits and risks of online tracking and targeting, as well as learn techniques for managing what happens to their own online data.

Each lesson includes materials for students and educators, teaching plans, and vocabulary lists. They offer specific ways to instill in students a sense of citizenship, digital literacy, and the tools they need to monitor who is viewing their digital trails. You can browse all of the lessons in our Digital Literacy and Citizenship Classroom Curriculum online here. As Kovacs said, “We are being watched. It’s now time for us to watch the watchers.”