Shouldn’t we teach data privacy in our schools?

17 Sep 2018

Image: Realstock/Shutterstock

Kids are already growing up digital, so how do we teach society to care more about data privacy and online safety? John Kennedy investigates.

Growing up in Ireland, we all had to learn the Safe Cross Code for safely crossing the street. For my generation, who mostly grew up outside and only came in for tea, it was Judge, a dog from an RTÉ programme called Wanderly Wagon, who taught us how to look for a safe place to cross.

It’s a different world now. The kids are all growing up digital. Fortnite is the new Lego. They don’t play outside as much, and where exactly are the safe places?

I spoke with a teenage relative at the weekend and asked her what kind of technology they are teaching them in school. She mentioned some assignments where they reformat a paragraph in Arial font and then cut and paste it to another document. “Stuff you already know?” I pressed. “Right!” she nodded and then lamented that she couldn’t get a signal for Snapchat on her iPhone.

When I was in primary school way back in the last century, we were learning rudimentary coding on old Amstrad, IBM and Sinclair computers. And that was before Tim Berners-Lee invented the world wide web.

It is clear that in 2018, the teaching of technology in schools and the actual reality of how far technology has reached into the lives of children and adults are in very different places. What are we teaching our people about the value of their data privacy and about protecting it?

I personally believe that we have to start somewhere and a good solid foundation in understanding data privacy needs to start in our schools. This ought to be deemed a social and civic necessity, not an exam choice geared for higher points.

Coverage of data and privacy issues in the national media veers from highbrow opinion pieces in broadsheets aimed at an already informed audience of insiders, to alarmist headlines in the more populist rags every time a breach occurs. There is little in between.

People are either bored silly by the subject or they are scared to death.

Data privacy matters

This week in Dublin, the Department of An Taoiseach will hold a one-day Data Summit at Croke Park that will be attended by some of the foremost minds on privacy and data from companies such as Microsoft and Google as well as senior policymakers from across Ireland and the EU.

It is interesting that the Taoiseach’s department is spearheading the initiative and this reflects the fact that Ireland is home to the business operations of some of the world’s biggest digital giants. Whether Ireland wishes it or not, it is in the eye of the digital storm.

The Data Protection Commissioner’s office headed by Helen Dixon has seen its resources significantly bulked up in the last two years to reflect Ireland’s enlarged set of responsibilities.

Recent scares range from the Cambridge Analytic affair that saw a political consultancy mine and harvest data on about 87m Facebook users, to the revelation that location tracking in Google Maps is not as easy to switch off as the app suggests.

And then there are the countless data breaches that make you wonder if a hacker somewhere has your credit card or is watching you right now through your webcam as you read this. Is some troll making your life a misery on social media? Are you oversharing on social media? And why the hell is someone in Serbia ringing you on your smartphone if you have never set foot in the place?

This is daily life in 2018. A life ordinary people never asked for but they have been given it nevertheless.

The scary reality of this is that some of these giant digital businesses that have managed to cleverly take ownership of our digital lives are themselves only learning the scale of their responsibility. And they don’t exactly exude confidence, despite their legions of lawyers and PRs. They are either very, very clever about what they do, are somehow impossible to contact when things go wrong, and shrug like Dr Frankenstein, claiming that they don’t wish to do evil but manage to give off the vibe that they are not quite sure what they have created.

A life less digital? No chance

The reality is that we have all grown up digital in the 20 years since most of us bought our first mobile phones or received our first SMS text messages. There are kids who have never known a world without broadband or smartphones and their first toys were iPads. We’ve had to learn through common sense what to do and what not to do.

Real situations ranging from young adults dying by suicide because of online bullying to defamation cases recently prompted talk of the establishment of a new digital safety commissioner. The commissioner would have statutory powers to compel social media players such as Facebook and Twitter to remove abusive material. This role was meant to have been created earlier this year, but wasn’t. Why?

If it ever comes into being, the role will be modelled on similar positions that have been established in New Zealand and Australia. The digital safety commissioner may also have an educational role, to focus on teaching young people about online behaviour and operating a complaints service for those who may experience bullying.

It can take a troll mere moments to destroy a life. It is a criminal offence in Ireland to harass a person by phone or text message, but not by social media.

The truth is that the technology has evolved faster than society or humanity’s ability to plan for it or to manage it.

Proper password protection, online etiquette, defending against harassment, not harassing or abusing others, understanding and respecting copyright, the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) – these are all subjects that need to be taught earlier on in life as we grow up in a world that will be all about data.

Whatever careers our young people take on, digital will be unavoidable and data a theme. We need to teach our young people the smarts about data protection. And that is because they are already digital.

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John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years