What are the pre-requisites for privacy awareness? Can you be privacy aware without an underlying understanding of the technology you’re using to share your personal information? And beyond the technology, what about the big ethical questions innovation raises?
Privacy, like the very platforms and business models in question, is not a standalone issue. It is a part of a complex ecosystem wherein there is give and take, compromises between convenience and our values, and implications which ripple out far beyond the obvious point of impact. To be truly privacy aware, we must have an understanding of what it means to be digitally literate and act as a digital citizen.
Digital Literacy & Digital Citizenship
Digital literacy is broadly defined as “the knowledge, skills, and behaviors used in a broad range of digital devices such as smartphones, tablets, laptops and desktop PCs, all of which are seen as a network rather than computing devices.” Additionally, the digitally literate understands “how to engage in online communities and social networks,” “find, capture, and evaluate information,” and “the societal issues raised by digital technology.” In a modern society, digital literacy is a requirement to becoming a digital citizen. The digital citizen “utilizes information technology in order to engage in society, politics, and government participation.” It is our responsibility to be digitally literate so we may hold ourselves and others accountable to our duties as co-creators of the world we share.
But where to begin? Given how vast the digital landscape, what are the essential topics for a digital citizen in 2017?
The Essentials of Digital Citizenship
MIT Press publishes a collection of books known as the “Essential Knowledge” series. The series “offers concise, accessible overviews of compelling topics” and “provide[s] expert syntheses of subjects ranging from the cultural and historical to the scientific and technical.” Within this series are several subjects key to the core of modern digital citizenship.
Carey Goldberg, writing for the WBUR.org blog recently reached out to Gita Manaktala, editorial director of the MIT Press to narrow down the series to the top ten topics relevant to a 21st century digital citizen. As Manaktala tells Goldberg,
“These are the topics that people are talking about, not just at cocktail parties but at work and at school and in our personal and social lives, that we have some understanding of but we probably need to know more about.”
On the list? The Internet of Things, Machine Learning, The Technological Singularity, Self-Tracking, Memes in Digital Culture, Open Access, Crowdsourcing, MOOCs (Massively Open Online Courses), Metadata, and Auctions. There isn’t really a topic that doesn’t touch on privacy and security issues. We need to understand the basics of these technologies so we can make informed privacy choices which align with our values. Additionally, we need to hold companies accountable to ethical technology practices.
The Elephant Hidden in Silicon Valley: Ethics
More often than not, the amazing things we can do with modern network technology dazzle us to the degree we never ask the question: Should we do this? Now more than ever we need to incorporate ethical questions into our discussion of technology.
One of the great voices willing to discuss this elephant hidden in the room is Anil Dash, CEO of Fog Creek Software and “early, vocal activist for moral imagination in the digital sphere, including advocating for metrics that encourage generative behaviors online.” Recently, Dash appeared on Krista Tippett’s On Being podcast.
Below are two quotes from Tippett’s interview with Dash, specifically as they relate to our values and the need for privacy by design. Here, Dash discusses thinking through the implications of technological choices. This connects to how we make privacy choices as well, especially when we are mindful and pause before we post:
Mr. Dash: We’re still sounding our way through this incorporation of technology into our lives. And it always does come down to — what are our values? And what do we care about? And what are the things we think are meaningful? And then using that as a filter to understand and control and make decisions around these new technologies. And that’s part of the reckoning I’d ask everybody who’s not in technology to have, is to raise that flag. At the time when somebody says, “You’ve got to try this new app,” “You’ve got to use this new tool,” think through what are the implications of, one, me using this, but two, if everybody does.
Finally, Dash suggests the need for something like privacy by design when it comes to our technological future:
Mr. Dash: [If] you look at every other professional discipline, you look at somebody who goes to law school, somebody who goes to business school, journalism school, medical school, every single one of those disciplines has a professional society that sets standards. And if you don’t meet them, you can be disbarred. You can lose your medical license. There’s an expectation about what you’re supposed to do.
And in the educational process, there’s an extensive ethical curriculum. The bridge has to stay up; it can’t fall down. You have a historical tradition where, in medicine, they’re going back to Hippocrates. In law, you’re like talking about English common law that happened centuries ago. And then in computer science, they’re sort of radically anti-historical. Not even ahistorical, just like, there is nothing before now.
We refuse to see — there is no before time. And there is zero ethical curriculum. You can get a top-of-the-line, the highest credential computer science degree from the most august institutions with essentially having had zero ethics training. And that is, in fact, the most likely path to getting funded as a successful startup in Silicon Valley.
Privacy is a choice, but it is only something we may choose if we understand the underlying issues which enable us to become good digital citizens. Do you feel prepared to do your part? Are there subjects where additional clarity might help? Make 2017 the year you embrace your digital literacy and privacy advocacy.