Team member Debbie Abilock on online youth privacy and big data

This post is Part 2 in a two-part series highlighting our team members’ work with Choose Privacy Week. This initiative of the American Library Association puts a spotlight on issues of privacy in today’s digital world, such as tracking in online searches. Knowing how your data are used is a component of data literacy, and we are excited to feature our team members’ blog posts on these topics.

Debbie wrote with Rigele Abilock about online privacy policies and data collection on the Choose Privacy Week blog. Data collection by vendors can affect students, as they explain:

Reconciling big data opportunities with healthcare privacy concerns is the same dilemma we face in education. Instructors want to support personalized learning, instruction, and classroom management with online offerings – but the data of underage patrons hangs in the balance. Just as health profiling based on longitudinal data collection raises red flags, so does educational performance profiling. Ethically and practically, youth will always be our Achilles Heel.

Knowing what data vendors are collecting can be difficult to discern. Debbie and Rigele advise a close examination of their Terms of Service and Privacy Policy:

The Privacy Policy is an on-the-ground description of how the vendor operates its site, and should be read in conjunction with the Terms of Service.  A link to the Privacy Policy must be placed on the vendor’s homepage and/or product page.  The Privacy Policy is a working picture of the company’s current and expected practices related to data use, collection, and sharing, as well as marketing, advertising, access, and security control. While a Privacy Policy lacks the contractual element of a click-through signature, it remains the primary declaration of the company’s privacy practices, and thus may be enforceable against a vendor that breaches those standard practices. Through a close reading of the Privacy Policy, you should be able to learn a great deal about a vendor’s privacy standards; if the language is overly complex or contorted, treat that as indicative of what a vendor may want you to know, or not.

And so we come to intention. Close reading of a Terms of Service and Privacy Policy must be augmented by your common-sense evaluation of a vendor’s corporate intention. Both for-profit and non-profit entities may choose to embed trackers into Web pages to collect information such as navigation patterns and preferences. Certain trackers, such as Facebook’s “like” thumb and Twitter’s blue bird, are visible, but most are hidden.  Sometimes these trackers follow the user to other sites to gain additional insight, in order to create a better user experience. Specifically, trackers may run tests on differences in language and image use, look for ways to improve navigation, and fix technical problems.

Check out their post for some practical tips on monitoring what information vendors collect!

Image: “Freedom from Surveillance — Choose Privacy Week 2012,” American Library Association, on Choose Privacy Week