Trust, Privacy and Everyday Life

I recently realized that it was time to move. My oldest son is 7 and he’d learned that “everything was on the Internet’ from a schoolmate, and wanted to see if our “house” was. We lived in a medium size apartment complex where the apartments all share the same address. We were the ground level apartment, with a townhouse above us, but inside the complex. I put the address into Google, switched on streetview, and, much to my surprise, used the little arrows to tour my apartment complex. When I made my way to our front door, I was taken aback. I’m sure it wasn’t noticeable to anyone but me, or the person who had the high resolution image that there was a silhouette of little boy in one of the windows that flanked the sides of the front door. It was the first time, though, that I can recall being a little bit not just worried but a bit paranoid about privacy on the Internet.

My oldest son spends a lot of time on the Internet. His class has contests for whoever does the most reading on The amount of reading he does is tracked. He records himself reading his Spanish out loud. It is all sent to his teacher who then emails us feedback. If he does the most reading, he gets things like special lunch dates with his teacher. I’ll be honest, I have used the fact that his teacher can see what he is doing as an incentive to get him to not speed through the books without actually reading them. However, there was something different and invasive about the Google camera looking inside our apartment. I imagine it has to do with knowing the intent of Raz Kids, and knowing when and mostly how it is being used. The Google thing just sort of happened.

Explaining Privacy to Children

I don’t want the digitally augmented world to be a scary place for my children. At the same time, I felt that it was important for them to understand what they were seeing the day we found one of them in the window on Google. I asked them if they remember me telling them they needed to wear pajamas or clothes around the house. They said yes. I then zoomed in on the picture and explained that one day a car was outside of the house, and it took a photo of them without them knowing. We talked about how they felt about it, and how they would feel if it had been them in their underwear. There was a bit of laughing, but my oldest son is old enough to know embarrassment. He said he’d be embarrassed because “he doesn’t want the whole world to see him in his underwear.” I was happy he understood, but we still moved to a new apartment. We are now on the second floor. While the second floor doesn’t take away the ability to see inside, it shifts the angle of viewing from head on to one of looking up, that causes a bit of distortion. If a camera wants to peer directly in, the technology will need to be more obvious, something I hope will make us more aware of when it is happening.

It’s Like Raz Kids, but for University Students 

Which brings us back to Raz Kids. And to my role as a university lecturer. My students don’t have Raz Kids, they have Sakai. Much like Raz Kids, there is a display where I get to see all of the data about what they’ve downloaded, how long they’ve been on the site, when and if they’ve completed assignments, when I put them in there, how long it took them to do the assignment, etc. Likewise, when they digitally turn in a word document, I can access meta data about who the owner of the word program they used is, and how long the document was worked on. Yet, none of this is as creepy as the Google cameras outside of the house.

I think that a big reason I felt unease about Google yet fine about Raz Kids and Sakai has to do with the innate cultural trust we have in traditional educational institutions and instructors at all levels of learning. Even though the information these tools compile about individual users can be invasive, we trust that the reason it is invasive to the level it is, is because it is for the greater good of some type of knowledge attainment. The speed and ease that these tools enable in terms of accessing the information to get the knowledge to move onto the next level of reading for a 7 year old or to meet the graduation requirement for an undergraduate student means that we go in blindly without questioning if we need a second floor to get away from some of the deep tracking that is happening in the various learning management tools we use. In my experience, we often fail to tell the students how much is being tracked (and most of them don’t read the terms). Further, if they didn’t use these tools, they wouldn’t be able to complete the learning outcomes they are supposed to be getting from the classroom. So, much like with the Google camera, they don’t have a choice, informed consent, or the ability to limit how much I am able to see. After the window incident, I found myself wondering if they should.

Trust Challenge

The DML 5 Trust Challenge, supported by the MacArthur Foundation and administered by HASTAC (Humanities, Arts, Science and Technology Alliance and Collaboratory) was announced a few weeks ago. The Trust Challenge funds successful collaborations or “laboratories” where challenges to trust in connected learning environments can be identified and addressed. Successful labs will create scalable, innovative, and transformative exemplars of connected learning that bridge technological solutions with complex social considerations of trust. Labs will develop digital tools — apps, badge systems, data management platforms, online learning content, etc. — that engender trust, safety, and privacy in connected learning environments, and that empower learners to connect and learn anywhere, anytime in ways that are equitable, social, participatory, and interest-driven. You can learn more about the DML 5 Trust Challenge at the competition website. is also running a webinar series in collaboration with HASTAC that tackles trust in connected learning environments. 

As part of the HASTAC group administering the competition, I think I speak for all of us when I say we look forward to seeing what the “second floors” groups are able to build. For me, our second floor apartment has all the amenities and access that our first floor apartment had, just with a bit more privacy, and as a result, trust in our ability to better anticipate what can be seen and by whom, so the kids still have to wear clothes near the windows.

Banner image credit: Tim Patterson