Internet Privacy: A Personal & Political Issue

In this interactive lesson, students consider the issue of internet privacy, both in their own lives and in society, including government spying, parental monitoring, and corporate tracking of consumers. What is the connection and potential conflict between safety and privacy, both on a personal and institutional level?

Learning Objectives

  • Students will reflect on their internet and technology use and how it connects to privacy.
  • Students will consider what level of privacy (and with whom) is important to them.
  • Students will gain insight into the similarities and differences between government spying, parental monitoring, and tracking of website habits for marketing purposes.
  • Students will explore the connection and potential conflict between security/safety and privacy, both on a personal and institutional level.

(To further explore the issue of government and corporate spying, see our lesson on NSA Surveillance and the Politics of Whistleblowing.) 


Warm-up: Have you ever...?

Have students stand side by side in the back of the classroom.  Read aloud the following yes/no questions, and ask each student to respond. If their answer is yes, they should step forward (and remain in that place as you read the next question). If their answer is no, they stay where they are.  By the end of the activity, some students will be all the way at the front, some will be in the middle, and some will be at the back of the classroom. 

  • Have you ever shopped online?
  • Have you ever posted photos on Instagram?
  • Have you ever sent a text message about something personal?
  • Have you ever used GPS (Global Positioning System)?
  • Have you ever tweeted?
  • Have you ever sent emails about something personal?
  • Have you ever sent photos using Snapchat?
  • Have you ever downloaded music for yourself?
  • Have you ever made a video and sent it to a friend or posted in on YouTube?
  • Have you ever used Skype or Facetime to chat with a friend?

After the activity, ask students: 

  • Are you surprised about where you are standing?  Why or why not? 
  • What do all of these questions have in common? (They are about privacy and the internet.)
  • Is privacy important to you or not?  Why? 
  • Which is more important—having access to all of this technology and content, or privacy? Do you think there's a way to have both? 



How Important is Privacy in your Life?

Ask: What is privacy?  Work with students to come up with a definition. This might include concepts such as "something that is personal and not publicly expressed" or "intended only for the person immediately concerned."  Explain that keeping something private doesn't necessarily mean keeping it solely to yourself. You might share your information, thought or feeling with just a few selected people.  For example, you might have a crush on someone and choose to tell your best friend but no one else. That is private between you and your best friend.  
Ask:  What kinds of things would you want always to remain private?  Create a list on the board under the heading  "What I want to be private."  For each item students name, write a corresponding "Private from ..." and ask students who they want this information to be private from. See the example below.

What I Want to Be Private

Private From ...

Who I have a crush on

Everyone, except my best friend

How much money my parents make

Everyone, except my immediate family

What kind of music I like

Corporations that are targeting me


Is Privacy a Right or a Privilege?

Ask:  Do you think that as a resident of the United States, you are entitled to privacy?  Have students vote yes, no or not sure by a show of hands and write the tally of yes vs. no responses on the board.

Then ask: Do you think you have a right to keep certain things private from other people in your life (classmates, family members, friends, etc.)?  Again, have students raise their hands in response and write the tally on the board. 

Finally, ask: Do you think you have a right to privacy from stores and companies who create profiles about you based on your online and shopping habits?  Record on the board.  The chart will look something like this:




Not Sure

Right to privacy as resident of US?




Right to privacy from other people?




Right to privacy from advertisers and companies?




Discuss by asking:  As a class, how do we feel about privacy in these different categories? Is one more important than others?  Why do you think as a class we voted the way we did?  If you voted differently than the majority, can you explain your reason?

Explain that the U.S. Constitution includes rights to privacy from the government. The Fourth Amendment, part of the Constitution's Bill of Rights, asserts "the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures" by the government.  The First Amendment, which protects freedom of religion, speech, press, and assembly, also implicitly safeguards the right to privacy in the form of freedom of thought and intellect.

As for online privacy, many websites keep track of consumers' habits, and use this information to market to them in a targeted way  (for instance, by suggesting other items a consumer might want to buy, based on their previous purchases). Brick-and-mortar stores also collect consumer information. Some ask for a shopper's address and phone number at checkout, though the shopper can refuse to provide this information. If you buy with a credit card, however, stores can use that information to get your address and add you to their database, including for catalog mailings. If you pay in cash, this information is obviously not accessible to the store.
Although it may not seem like you are giving very much information when you browse the internet and post on social media, you are relaying personal information to the corporations that operate these websites, from retail stores to Facebook, Instagram and YouTube. Your browser provides your IP address to the site operators.  As you move from site to site online, numerous companies use sophisticated methods to track and identify you.  Ask: Have you noticed how some of the ads on the sites you visit seem to be perfectly match your interests? That is because advertisers are always developing new ways to promote products. The easiest way for them to find out your likes and habits is keeping a close eye on your social media behavior and your internet searches.

The information you provide on social media sites and other websites may also be viewed by colleges and employers as part of their screening process.
Discuss by asking: 

  • What do you think about the information I just shared?  Does it feel okay, or not okay? 
  • Did you know that when you go online, information is being collected about you? 


Privacy vs. Safety

Explain that many people are concerned about privacy and don't want to give up the privacy they believe they are entitled to.  Other people don't care as much about privacy and share information willingly. Many people are not aware of how little privacy they actually have and the way the information they share may be used.  

Ask students if they have heard about the controversy over Edward Snowden and the NSA (the National Security Agency). Explain that Snowden, who worked as an NSA consultant, leaked a collection of classified documents that revealed that the government is keeping track of U.S. citizens' phone records and internet histories.  Under a program known as PRISM, the government has obtained enormous amounts of data about Americans' personal communications from companies such as Verizon, Yahoo, Microsoft, Google, and Facebook.  (See our TeachableMoment lesson on Snowden and the NSA.) 

U.S. officials have argued that to protect national security, they need to and have the right to collect and analyze information about people without them knowing about it. This includes emails, phone records, online habits, and information from social media sites. In this way, the government can uncover illegal things that people are doing and planning, including terrorist acts.

Some people believe that this as a necessary evil, that we have to give up some of our privacy to ensure our safety. Others believe that the government's secret collection of private information is a violation of privacy rights and that government could potentially use this information in harmful ways (for instance, to target those who legally oppose government policies). 
Ask: Do you think the government is justified in violating privacy to prevent terrorism? Are you concerned that government might use the information it collects in harmful ways?

Now move the discussion to the personal aspects of the security vs. privacy dilemma. Ask:  What is an example from your own life when your need for privacy conflicted with your safety or security? Explain that just as government thinks it must invade people's privacy to ensure safety and security for its citizens, sometimes parents feel they need to look at  their teen's  internet and social media habits to make sure they aren't putting themselves in danger online.
Ask: Do you think parents are ever justified in violating their kids' privacy in order to protect them?
Lead a discussion with the following questions: 

  • Are there ways in which the government spying on people is similar to parents monitoring their kids' internet use?
  • Are there ways in which it is different?  (It is important to point out the differences in power and scope.  While parents are able to do harm and might try to control their children by spying on them, the damage they can do is minimal compared to the government's capacity to can harm individual citizens or large groups of people with information they get by spying. And of course, the government's relationship to its citizens is different from a parent's relationship to their child.)
  • Can you think of any examples where the government used private information they got by spying on people to harm them?  (If they don't come up with any examples, you can share with them that the FBI had a constant surveillance on Martin Luther King, Jr. They used hidden tape recorders, tapped his office and home phones, tracked his airplane flights, and carefully watched his friends and associates.  They were trying to discredit him and his ability to be a leader in the Civil Rights movement.)


Fishbowl Activity:  Privacy vs. Safety

Invite 5-7 students to make a circle with their chairs in the middle of the room. Ask everyone else to make a circle of chairs around the fishbowl (so you will have a smaller circle within a larger circle). Only people in the fishbowl can speak. The process is intended to facilitate focused listening.

Ask students to speak in turn to the following situation (or use a situation of your own or based on student responses from your earlier discussion):

Maria is 13 years old and wants to join social media sites like Facebook, Google+, and Instagram.  Most of her friends already have accounts.  Maria's parents tell her that she can only join if they have all her passwords and can access her sites to check every once in a while, to make sure that strangers aren't following her and that she isn't doing anything inappropriate.  When Maria was 11, she joined Google+ and by accident her mother happened upon her account. She noticed that an older man had been in Maria's circle and when she clicked on his account, there were naked photos of him.* Maria's parents are also concerned about bullying online.  They have a friend whose son was bullied so much on Instagram that he had to leave his school. 

Maria doesn't want her parents to have access to her social media accounts, emails, or text messages.  She feels it is an invasion of her privacy and that she cannot be herself if her parents are constantly looking and watching.  But it's more than just privacy. Maria is worried that her parents will use the information they get from Facebook to tell her who to be friends with and who not to be friends with.  They have strong opinions about who she is friends with and who she dates, and she is pretty sure they will try to control her social life by interfering with what she does on social media.

Give each student in the fishbowl a minute or two to speak to the situation without being interrupted. Then provide a specific amount of time for clarifying questions and further comments from students in the fishbowl. After 10-12 minutes, invite students from the larger circle to participate in the conversation by tapping a fishbowl student on the shoulder and moving into that student's seat.

Following the fishbowl, lead a large group discussion by asking the following questions:

  • What was the conflict between safety and privacy in the scenario?
  • How would you feel if you were in this situation?
  • What would you do if you were in a situation like this?
  • Can you understand Maria's point of view?  How about her parents' point of view?
  • How can they resolve the conflict between privacy and safety?



Have students write: 

I used to think privacy was ______________ and now I think it is _________________. 

Share some of the responses aloud.


* For more information on talking with teenagers about internet safety, see the following resources: