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What Works: Students’ smartphones are centerpiece in debate on privacy

By Jerry Fingal
March 28, 2020
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To learn about the Bill of Rights and the right to privacy, civics teacher Katrina Traylor Rice asks her students to go beyond reading primary-source documents. She actually has them take out their phones and check their privacy settings.

Students quickly learn that some of their apps know exactly where they are and have access to their photo galleries and other personal data. What they may have thought was private isn’t.
The exercise is all part of Rice’s effort to drive home the Bill of Rights to the 10th grade students in her Introduction to the Law and Speech Communication course at Jesse Bethel High School in Vallejo, California.

“The amendments are really simple,” Rice said. “They’re actually really short. But really attacking them and understanding their implications is a much more in-depth process.”

With the Fourth Amendment, which explicitly prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures, Rice starts with the students watching “Citizenfour,” a documentary focused on Edward Snowden’s disclosures about a massive U.S. government surveillance program.
The film poses questions about exchanging privacy for national security, and whether more security and less privacy actually makes the nation safer.

“Those are questions I don’t have an answer to,” Rice says. “I don’t teach the unit with the secret answer in my head. It’s something that I, as an adult, grapple with. I’m not sure what the best answer is, and I understand both sides of the controversy.”

From national security, Rice brings the issue into students’ lives through their phones. Students might be surprised by what personal data they’re providing, but they’re usually not moved to actually do anything about it.

“What’s fascinating is that when they watch the film, they don’t like that the government has access to information,” Rice says. “But when they look at all the apps on their phone and see how they have access to their information, they’re OK with it. I can’t explain that because I’m not a teenager. But that’s interesting for me as a teacher to see that they generally come to this conclusion that they actually don’t want the government spying on them, but if these apps ask for permission, they’ll give them all of their data in order to play their game.”

The point of the lesson, however, isn’t for students to delete apps. It’s to make them aware of what they’re giving up.

“It’s important that students know they have the power to make decisions about their privacy,” Rice says.

“It leads to more knowledge and awareness, and shows that they do have options to opt in or opt out, even though opting out might mean they can’t use the app. But they’re also looking at the bigger questions that our government and our society have to grapple with about whether we’re OK with not having as much protection of our privacy as maybe the Fourth Amendment intended.”

As part of the project, Rice has the students do a mock Supreme Court hearing where they act as lawyers and argue about whether the government should have access to private information or why smartphone app companies should be able to access personal information. The rest of the students act as Supreme Court justices and decide the cases.

How the students rule varies from class to class. The students are faced with so many varied opinions that it’s difficult to come to a unanimous decision, Rice says.

“It varies every period,” she said. “But they get a chance to really discuss the issue and learn more about the Supreme Court process and how cases are heard and decided.”

If Rice feels a class needs to develop writing skills, she will have students write an opinion about why they agree or disagree with the decision that was made.

Why does it work?

It promotes critical thinking. Because there is no correct answer, students have to think critically to decide for themselves what they think is right. Is it an unacceptable invasion of privacy when app companies harvest personal data in exchange for using their products and disclose what they’re doing? Most students think not.

“I think it’s so compelling because they know I don’t know the answer and they really feel like they have a voice. They have to figure out what it means to them rather than having to figure out the right answer.”

It prepares them to live in the digital world. Understanding the privacy landscape as it relates to apps and digital tools is an essential skill.
“It adds to their understanding that they need to learn things for themselves,” Rice says. “They realize they need to make sure information is coming from reliable sources and then to still be skeptical because sometimes there are things that aren’t being shared with us.”

It addresses the ISTE Standards for Students. The project is a good example of Digital Citizen standard 2d: “Students manage their personal data to maintain digital privacy and security, and are aware of data-collection technology used to track their navigation online.” (Watch a video on this indicator.)

“I think they become more thoughtfully skeptical of information fed to them,” Rice says. Students adopt an attitude of “‘let me check for myself, let me look at the settings myself, let me do the research and investigate.’ And not just accept information as true.”

How do teachers address the ISTE Standards? Watch the videos!

Jerry Fingal is a freelance writer and editor specializing in education, business and finance.