Are You Worried About Your Internet Privacy?

Both government agencies and private companies have extensive access to data about us. In this activity, students learn about challenges to our digital privacy and discuss their own views about the risks we take when we put information online.  



1. Who is most likely to have had someone else using their Social Security number?

a)  children

b)  adults

c)  undocumented immigrants


2. What percentage of internet users got this True or False question wrong? "When a company posts a privacy policy, it ensures that the company keeps confidential all the information it collects on users."

a) 92%

b) 29%

c)  52%

d)  10%

3. True or False

It's illegal for schools to monitor students' social media.


4. What is data mining?

a)  Extracting the lithium ore "data 112" from underground.

b)  Claiming data for oneself.

c)  Collecting information from electronic sources.

d)  None of the above


5. Which one of the following was not a U.S. intelligence agency surveillance program?

a) BULLRUN: NSA program designed to defeat or weaken encryption programs

b) POOPER2: A joint Microsoft/NSA program to retrieve documents placed in computer trash/recycling

c)  MAINWAY: Database containing hundreds of billions of phone records

d)  Carnivore: FBI program to monitor email communications

e)  DCSNet: An FBI program which can instantly tap into any US telecommunications device



1. (a) Children are 50 times more likely to have their Social Security number used by someone else

2. (c) 52% thought that the statement was true. It isn't.

3.  False. Few laws limit the monitoring.

4. (c)

5.  (b)



Are you a "typical" teen when it comes to online privacy?

The hazards of the internet are almost too many to count:

  • identity theft
  • online bullying
  • face–to–face meet–ups with dangerous people
  • data mining
  • embarrassment
  • government surveillance
  • stupid stuff future employers might see
  • "phishing" for passwords
  • stalking
  • sharing fake news
  • clickjacking
  • introducing malware or a virus

Surveys show that young people have a different attitude about online dangers compared to older folks. You are more likely to disapprove of government surveillance of our internet use and cell phones, but more relaxed about sharing all kinds of information on social media.

Each advance in technology has made it increasingly easier for government agencies with enormous budgets, hordes of technicians, and vast access to reach into the private lives of just about everyone. Every email, text, phone conversation, phone location, car location, online purchase, internet search, credit card purchase, and social media post is potentially available to the National Security Agency, FBI or some other government body.

Much of that information is protected by law. Court approval is necessary for law enforcement agencies to inspect our private communications or other data. We are also protected, to some extent, by the utter vastness of the data. The FBI doesn't have the need or the personpower to actually collect all the bits of information that are technically collectible.

However, the FBI, NSA, and numerous other agencies have a spotty history of adhering to the laws restricting their access to information. And the threat of terrorism provided them with extra motivation to avail themselves of every tool possible—whether legal, illegal, or in the gray area in between. For example, the special courts set up to consider intelligence agency requests to obtain records from internet service providers have rarely refused permission.

We’ve seen a continual tug–of–war between law–enforcement and civil liberties organizations (like the ACLU and Electronic Frontier Foundation) to broaden or narrow the rules of access. Whistleblowers (such as Edward Snowden) have helped make that tug–of–war a national discussion. So if you are in that 55% of teens who are unhappy about  government spying, you've got ample reason to be concerned.

Advances in technology have made it increasingly easy for private companies to amass profiles of individuals. Where you've been, what you buy, your income, your interests, your politics, and much more is collected and can be gathered into one place. An entire industry has developed around gathering and selling whatever information is available.  There are companies that develop the technical tools to find data, companies that track online behavior, and companies that buy data from various sources and compile it.  Other corporations package the data into products that advertisers will buy.

All the websites that we think of as free—Google, Youtube, Facebook, etc.—are making money by selling the users to advertisers, and the more targeted, the more specific the information, the more money they can charge the advertisers. But again, there are limitations on this collection of data by private companies:

  • some information is protected by law
  • web services sell only limited information so as to maintain the value of their data treasure
  • some information is protected by privacy opt–outs
  • some information is not marketable
  • some information is available only in an aggregate form (for example, the Census might tell you that households in a neighborhood have  an average income of $300,000, but that's only a clue that a specific household in the neighborhood is wealthy)

Teens especially make it easy to collect information. By keeping social media settings public (and there are social advantages to that), we are giving oodles of information away for free. The potential dangers are not always immediate and obvious, such as bullying, embarrassment, harassment, or stalking. For example:

  • A dad saw mail advertisements from Target for baby products arriving for his teenage daughter. Irate, he confronted Target and found out that they compile a pregnancy profile accumulated from the purchase of telltale items in the store. Target knew before Dad knew.
  • In 2016 a Harris poll found that 60% of employers surveyed use social media to screen applicants for jobs. Almost half of those employers screening through social media have not hired someone because of what they have found.
  • Landlords, insurers, and lenders are in various stages of using social media to screen prospective clients and tenants.

Only 9% of teen internet users are "very concerned" about third–party (businesses or advertisers) access to their data. How concerned are you?



For Discussion

1. Compare your own attitude about internet safety with those of your peers (based on a survey by the Pew Charitable Trust).

Raise your hand if you are very concerned about someone...

  • accessing your account without your permission (47% of your peers said yes)
  • sharing personal information about you online (43% of your peers said yes)
  • having a photo or video shared that you wanted to keep private (38%)
  • sending you something that makes you feel uncomfortable (32%)
  • unknown companies access data from your social media accounts (9%)

2. Who should have the main responsibility for keeping  safe on the internet—kids or parents?

(62% of teens feel that it is their own responsibility. 44% of parents think it's their responsibility.)

3.  How much do your parents know about what you do online?  Do you purposely not tell them? (57% of teens have created accounts that their parents don't know about.)

4.  Do people share too much information about themselves on social media?

(88% of teens say yes.)

5. What kinds of data about individuals would you restrict further?

  • companies selling individual profiles
  • tracking internet purchases
  • tracking searches
  • information on political beliefs
  • government surveillance of email and internet searches
  • government access to phone records

6. What arguments would you use in talking with someone who feels that in this technological age, we have to just get used to the lack of privacy?