Unless you’ve been living in a cave since early June, you have certainly heard of the issues revolving around Edward J. Snowden, the National Security Agency (NSA), and the associated reports and articles.
The views of academics, investigative journalists, politicians, lawyers, technical wizards, and well-informed writers, have dominated the news.
Undoubtedly, we have a strong presence of people who understand the core issues, and are capable of informing us of the stakes involved. There is an abundance of information – certainly sufficient to help us form our own opinions on what’s happening (at least that’s what we hope).
However, do most students actually know what’s going on? Do they have the prerequisite knowledge to comprehend the potential ramifications of government surveillance programs on their personal lives? Are they able to filter through and decipher all the information floating around? Are they able to form their own, educated opinions rather than getting sucked into the sometimes biased popular media?
The answer to all these questions, I think, is no. This answer is worrisome because there is a continually accelerating trend in the world that schools usually ignore: the future proves to be increasingly friendly to the knowledgeable and cognisant, and unforgivingly cruel to the ignorant and uninformed.
This is precisely why schools should take action, by making online privacy and cyber security education mandatory. Yes, I said mandatory.
There are many unaware or ignorant students who have not the slightest clue of NSA’s PRISM program, or the highly classified Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. Try a litmus test, if you’d like. Have a son or daughter, a brother or sister, or a friend in high school? Ask them what they think of PRISM. Ask them of Mr. Snowden. Ask them about which technology companies are allegedly involved (of which they are likely users). Just don’t be surprised if you get a blank look.
But we usually have a self-defence mechanism that encourages us to avoid understanding the “boring” details. “Oh, I have nothing to hide, let them take what they want”, some will confidently proclaim. Daniel J. Solove, professor of law at George Washington University, argues in The Chronicle of Higher Education, that the nothing-to-hide argument is a broken, singular, and excessively narrow way of conceiving privacy. It should not be used as an excuse to ignore or undermine the importance of government surveillance programs and online privacy regulations.
The degree to which metadata can be manipulated, if left in the wrong hands, is likely beyond the imagination of most people unfamiliar with the world of privacy. The case of Malte Spitz – a German Green party politician who painstakingly retrieved 6 months of his phone data from a telecoms giant – serves as an instructive example. After successfully getting the data, he provided it to Zeit Online with the goal of showing everyone the possibilities of metadata. Spitz’s geolocation data was then combined with other information freely available about him over the Internet. The result? 35,830 pieces of data that allow you to track his travels across Germany, see what time he went to sleep and woke up, and much more. See it for yourself.
Incomprehension of these domains is not an option because virtually everyone with access to the Internet is an important stakeholder. The current debates surrounding online privacy, government surveillance, and cyber security and espionage, are just scratching the surface. As technology becomes more complex and integrated in our daily lives, these debates will only get more heated, intricate, and vicious. This is why revolutionary advances in technology call for equally audacious changes in education. If we leave things stagnant, our society will be best at graduating conformity-driven individuals incapable of understanding or questioning any technology they use. Vulnerability to manipulation will only rise, to a point where it will become hard to reverse any damages.
Online privacy, cyber security, and government surveillance are becoming increasingly prevalent in our lives. Creating a healthy sense of scepticism is the only way to ensure that individuals do not fall victim to any vulnerability. The best way to foster such scepticism is to encourage awareness of and understanding on these issues. scepticism also shuts doors to ignorance, leaving very little room for manipulation by governments and technology behemoths. Transparency will no longer be an option. Rather, it will become a core necessity to satisfy the people. But it all has to start with the seed of change: our education system.
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