How do we teach kids about privacy?

Address given to the Canadian Teachers’ Federation Member Organizations’ Staff Meeting

Ottawa, Ontario
November 18, 2016

Address by Anne-Marie Hayden
Director General, Communications Branch

(Check against delivery)


I’ll spend the first 20 to 25 minutes talking about current research and new developments in youth privacy.

After that, I’m hoping we’ll have a bit of time for questions and discussion.

My presentation this morning is intended to be a conversation starter.

How can we better prepare our kids to be responsible digital citizens?

Where do privacy skills fit into the picture?

Where are the knowledge gaps – among young people, and in your own understanding of privacy issues? And how can our office help with that?

So I’m hoping that I’m not doing all the talking, and that I can do some of the listening.

I am really keen to hear about your experiences, your observations, and your suggestions.

My partner and I have children. And even though we both work in the privacy field, as parents we sometimes struggle with issues like:

  • when to introduce a new technology or game,
  • how to talk to our kids about what they share online, and
  • how we can model skills and behaviour that will lead them to make privacy-positive choices in life.

We are thankful for the smart, engaged, and dedicated teachers who guide their learning – who challenge them, inspire them, and prepare them for the future.

As we all know, technology is becoming a bigger and bigger part of that future. Not just in terms of how we use technology, but also, increasingly, how technologies mediate our lives.

From big data, metadata, surveillance, to the internet of things -- it is a big world out there, one that’s very different from the one I grew up in – and probably the one you grew up in, too.

Whether you use these technologies in the classroom or not, kids need the literacy and critical thinking skills to make informed choices as they move through adolescence into adulthood.

While those of us working in privacy might have some insights, we certainly don’t have all the answers. Which is why our office is deeply engaged in a multi-year outreach strategy focused on young people, the educational sector, and youth-serving organizations.

I’ll speak a bit more about that later.

Let me start by giving you a brief overview about the office I represent.

In Canada, as in Europe, we are fortunate to have umbrella privacy laws that provide broad privacy protections in both the public and the private sector.

These are principle-based laws that set out the ground rules institutions must follow if they want to collect, use, and disclose personal information in the course of doing business.

The Privacy Commissioner of Canada is an agent of Parliament, independent from government, whose mandate is to oversee and enforce two pieces of legislation:

  • The Privacy Act, which applies to federal government departments and agencies, and
  • The Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act (we call it PIPEDA), which applies to private sector organizations engaged in commercial activity. It also applies to federally-regulated works, undertakings, or businesses including banks, airlines, and telecommunications companies.

There are also provincial and territorial information and privacy commissioners, who enforce the laws in their jurisdictions.

At the OPC we have a dual role – we call it protection and promotion.

First, we resolve privacy disputes. Individuals can come to our office when they believe their privacy rights have been violated, and our office can help to address those complaints. In certain instances we can initiate investigations proactively and conduct audits into privacy practices.

But we are also advocates and educators. We devote some of our resources to raising awareness about privacy rights, and advocating for stronger privacy protections. We do this by, for example:

  • sharing information about our investigations in annual reports
  • making public statements on emerging privacy issues
  • giving expert testimony on the privacy implications of laws and policies contemplated by Parliament, and
  • through plain-language guidance and information for small businesses, government agencies, and the general public as well.

There’s a myth out there -- one that’s been around for a very long time -- that young people don’t care about privacy.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

Some of you might be thinking, “Tell that to the kids who broadcast their lives on Snapchat.”

The thing is, they do care.

Research by Media Smarts in Canada and the Pew Research Centre in the United States shows us that youth are taking control of their personal information in innovative ways.

For example:

Young people are selective about who they share information with:

  • By keeping their social media profiles private, and
  • By deleting people from their networks

They’re taking steps to remove people or information:

  • By deleting comments posted to their profiles, and
  • deleting or editing past posts

They’re obscuring information about themselves:

  • By pretending to be someone else or using a pseudonym
  • They're cloaking or otherwise coding messages they post online, quoting song lyrics to convey a message to friends

They’re securing their personal information in surprising ways:

  • By de-activating social media profiles when they're not in use, preventing anyone from accessing information or photos they've previously posted. Once they're ready to use the service again, they reactivate the account and everything pops back into place.

And, in what is perhaps a more extreme example, an Australian teenager is suing her parents for posting her baby pictures on Facebook.

Many say that privacy is about control – what you as a person choose to share about yourself, and with whom.

One way to understand the privacy-seeking behaviour of young people online is that they’re making a place of their own, away from the prying eyes of parents and authority figures.

It’s the equivalent to the closed bedroom door. You have an idea of what they’re up to behind that door, but you aren’t privy to exactly what’s going on.

We all know that kids need space to experiment with ideas and identities, to try on different sensibilities and personas. It’s part of growing up.

Where adults see an apparent contradiction, youth see an opportunity. Online media is a key place for identity play, social connectedness, and self-validation.

Another important factor in privacy-seeking behaviour by young people is managing reputation.

This is especially true for teens. How they’re perceived by others in their social circles – both online and off – is paramount.

As a result, many young people are very aware and cautious about how they are viewed online and want more control over their information.

While we should be encouraged by these privacy-seeking attitudes, we must also recognize there are gaps in knowledge and skills.

While youth may be sophisticated users of online services, they don’t necessarily understand how the technology works or the business models that support it.

Here, I’m talking about those that provide free services in exchange for your personal information. That’s right – those free games, social media sites and mobile apps aren’t really free. They are cashing in the personal data we, adults included – myself included! – readily give up when we hastily click through all those permissions.

This is why we sometimes see a misalignment between young people’s concerns about privacy and their actions in the online environment.

For example, 40% of teens say they are “very” or “somewhat” concerned that the information they share on social networking sites might be accessed by third parties, like advertisers or businesses, without their knowledge.

Yet 65% of students have never had a privacy policy or terms of use agreement explained to them, and 68% mistakenly believe that “if a website has a privacy policy, that means it will not share my personal information with anyone.”

Like an iceberg, there is so much happening under the surface that young people might not understand, let alone know about.

How can young people take steps to protect themselves, if they are in the dark – if they can’t see the bits and bytes of personal information they are giving up in exchange for using online services?

And if they do know information exchange is happening – but they don’t have the skills to critically assess those activities and their implications for privacy – how can they make informed choices?

This is why young people count on those closest to them to help them navigate the unknowns – parents especially, but also friends, and of course teachers.

I’d be curious to hear from you as to where you find information to teach students privacy skills.

I know that the CTF recently partnered with Media Smarts to survey teachers about what digital literacy skills they feel students should be learning, and how confident they feel in teaching those skills.

While the vast majority of those surveyed felt digital skills are important, they were less confident teaching the sub-set of privacy skills, such as understanding online privacy issues and settings, and understanding how organizations collect and use personal information online.

After engaging with children and youth, parents, librarians, educators and youth-serving organizations, our Office recognizes that we need to do more to make ourselves, and the resources we produce, more readily available.

To reach parents, we have started exhibiting and distributing resources at events like the Parent and Child Expo, the Winnipeg Belly and Baby Fair, and Teenfest in Western Canada, and we’ve been writing articles for parent-focused media.

We’ve reached out to a number of youth-serving organizations, like Scouts Canada and Big Brothers and Big Sisters, to see how we can work more closely with them to develop digital literacy and privacy skills among their young members.

And we’re speaking to organizations like yours to better connect with teachers, and let them know about the resources we’ve created that can help them in the classroom.

Let me give you just a couple of examples of some resources we’ve created that educators might find useful.

Our most popular publication to date has been our comic book, Social Smarts.

The comic tells the story of a brother and sister who learn (sometimes the hard way) about the privacy risks related to social networking, mobile devices and texting, and online gaming.

We wanted readers to see how valuable their personal information is, how companies are using it, and what they can do to protect themselves.

To make sure we were hitting the right notes, we got feedback from kids in Grades 6 and 9 when the comic was in the development stages. We also “road-tested” an early version with teachers in the Ottawa and Gatineau regions to make sure it was relevant and useful as a classroom resource.

We've heard that the comic is a helpful resource for engaging young people in a discussion about their online activities, and how those activities can positively or negative affect their reputation online and offline.

We have since developed a discussion guide to help direct conversations with students in a classroom setting.

It’s been around for more than a couple of years now, so we’re hoping to have young people look at it to let us know whether it’s worth updating or whether we should develop a new one, to add to the collection.

Earlier this year, we launched an interactive tool on our website for families, called House Rules for Online Privacy.

The tool encourages parents and kids to first talk about how they spend their time online, then discuss the ways they can protect their privacy while still communicating, exploring, learning, and playing in that space.

The tool essentially customizes rules to each family’s unique situation, and pumps them out so that they can be posted on the fridge or alongside the computer.

We ran a campaign encouraging parents to use our House Rules online tool to spark a discussion about their kids’ online activities and we continue to try to promote it actively. For example, it’ll be featured on the new OPC Facebook page we’re hoping to launch soon.

On another note, there are also some exciting new partnerships on the horizon.

Privacy commissioners at the federal and provincial levels agree that focusing on youth privacy education and awareness is hugely important. We struck a committee to devote some of our collective energies toward this effort.

We have since engaged Media Smarts to help us produce new resources to improve privacy skills among youth – in particular, some lesson plans for schools.

The first lesson plan will accompany a video we recently created. A picture says a thousand words, so we developed a short video that seeks to help kids learn about the permanence of online posts, and the implications for privacy and reputation. Essentially, how difficult it is to get the toothpaste back in the tube.

I would be interested to know what topics you think we should address with these new resources, which would be made available to schools and teacher associations across Canada.

This isn’t just an issue of national interest. Most recently, privacy education was also spotlighted at the international level.

Last month, Privacy Commissioners from around the world met in Marrakech, where they passed a resolution endorsing an international competency framework for privacy education.

We were happy to see this resolution adopted – because it will help make privacy education a priority around the world.

A detailed document, intended for educators, outlines the framework’s nine foundational principles for privacy education which include, for example:

  • Privacy and civil liberties
  • Controlling one's use of personal information
  • Online safety; and
  • Becoming a digital citizen

Each principle has a list of detailed skill and knowledge outcomes, framed as “I understand” and “I can” statements for learners.

For example:

  • I understand the concept of privacy, the right to privacy, and the need to have these rights recognized and protected;
  • I understand the terms and conditions of use relative to online services
  • I can express myself online while taking into account the nature of the space in which I am posting – be it private, public, related to school, with family and friends
  • I can participate in an online debate with respect for others

While it is still early days, this is a very exciting development, and one we hope gets us further along the path of better articulating and describing the essential privacy skills young people need to learn.

In closing, I’m not just here to plug our office’s work.

I want to hear from you, too!

I welcome your feedback, opinions, recommendations on what we’ve already created, but also on what you’d like to see and what would be useful in your classroom.

We’re about to start refreshing our multi-year youth outreach strategy – so the timing for this conversation is ideal. It presents an opportunity to incorporate your comments and feedback into the planning, which is getting underway shortly.

So, with that, I thank you for your time and the opportunity to speak with you, and I very much welcome your questions and comments.

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