Young people today care about online privacy, but many lack the knowledge they need to protect themselves.
That’s a lesson Leslie Canteris learned recently, after discovering some unsettling news about her Facebook profile.
As part of a classroom exercise about online privacy at her Winnipeg high school, Canteris, 17, found more than 150 third-party apps (applications) had gained access to the information in her account.
“It’s surprising, because half of them I don’t even know. I didn’t know that I installed them,” she says.
“[It’s] very concerning, because I don’t know what kind of information they take from my Facebook account.”
Canteris and her classmates at Sisler High School are learning how companies track them on social media.
From the front of the room, teacher Jamie Leduc is giving a lesson on third-party apps, which are programs and games that appear on sites such as Facebook but aren’t developed by them and often have complex privacy policies.
According to a recent study, this is a lesson more Canadian youth need to learn.
Confusion about privacy policies
The survey, released by not-for-profit agency MediaSmarts last month, says Canadian students between grades four and 11 are concerned about what companies do with the information they post online, but many don’t fully understand the policies that can help protect their privacy.
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At the same time, almost no Canadian students think marketing companies should be able to read their social networking posts or track their locations.
The discrepancy is clear: kids do not want to be tracked, but they may not know how to avoid it.
“I think we’re all basically clueless,” says Julia Angwin, a New York-based journalist at ProPublica and author of Dragnet Nation, a new book about surveillance and online privacy.
“We’re facing a situation that’s really new and really hard for people to figure out.”
Angwin believes kids do care about online privacy, and in fact “they actually spend more time adjusting their privacy settings than even adults do.”
The problem is the knowledge gap between wanting to keep things private and knowing how to do so.
Angwin has taught her own two children, ages six and nine, to have fun while exercising caution online, by changing their names when playing online games and inventing detailed passwords that would be tough for outsiders to crack. Her daughter has become so skilled at making tough passwords that she’s started selling them to family members for a dollar each.
Angwin acknowledges that her own interest in online privacy has rubbed off on her kids.
“What I realized about kids is that they basically do what you do, not what you say,” she says. “I think we’re all going to have to get a little better at protecting our privacy in a world where there’s indiscriminate surveillance.”
A world of ‘indiscriminate surveillance’
Teenagers, such as those in Jamie Leduc’s technology class at Sisler High School, have grown up immersed in an online world that their parents may not be caught up with.
A show of hands in his classroom indicates that the students unanimously use social media sites and download apps on their smartphones.
Despite this, Leduc says, “the majority of the students do not know anything about the privacy policies, anything about what [third-party apps] are.”
Leduc says this is where schools need to come in.
“Who is responsible for teaching the next generation about social media, about privacy policies, about how marketing agencies are mining for your data?” he asks.
“I don’t think that parents are as tech savvy as the younger generation, so I’m a firm believer that if we’re not doing this in high school right now, who is?”
The positive news is that when kids do learn about online privacy issues, they tend to take action.
Nick Dickson, 18, graduated from Sisler High School last year and now helps out as an assistant in Leduc’s class. He says learning about online privacy had an impact on him as a student.
“Right away,” Dickson says, “I started deleting some of the pictures that had personal information in them. I completely changed my privacy settings on every site, changed the names I used.”