CLAYTON, Mo. — In an age of increased online government surveillance and targeted social media ads, the notion of privacy as a classroom subject worthy of distinct study is gaining momentum far beyond the narrow niches of First Amendment lawyers and computer hackers.
Using a privacy curriculum developed at Fordham Law School in New York, educators there and at another dozen of the country's top law schools want to equip adolescents growing up in a digital world with a user manual that has little to do with apps and pixel resolution.
At the St. Michael School in suburban St. Louis, middle-school students recently learned how to manage their digital reputations. Led by a law-student instructor from nearby Washington University, the preteens discussed how facial recognition software is used everywhere from Facebook to the local mall. As the cellphone increasingly becomes an early adolescent rite of passage, they debated the legal and ethical issues raised by spending hours each day online or texting with friends.
"The challenge facing our society, and our schools, is how to take (advantage of) the benefits of these undeniably, life-improving technologies while minimizing the costs," said Neil Richards, a Washington University law professor who oversees the privacy training at St. Michael and a second area private school. "It's important to teach your kids how to be in charge of technology, just like any other tool."
In addition to Washington University and Fordham, participating schools include Georgetown, Harvard, Idaho, Princeton, Tulane, Yale and the University of California campuses in Berkeley and Irvine. A sample curriculum developed by Fordham's Center for Law and Information Policy was financed by a court-approved settlement in a class action lawsuit against NebuAd, a defunct company that tracked Internet users' surfing habits for targeted sales pitches.
The Silicon Valley startup went out of business in 2009 amid widespread backlash and congressional hearings. Although individual Web sites routinely target advertising, privacy advocates argued that NebuAd's all-encompassing approach went too far by monitoring consumers' overall online habits. The company agreed to donate about $1.7 million to nonprofit, Internet privacy groups.
At St. Michael, a school-wide survey of technology and social media use and aptitude showed a wide disconnect among students and their parents, said teacher Michael Holohan — a gap he said only reinforces the value of privacy education.
"In their workplace, they don't embrace technology. They only use it as a tool," he said of his students' parents. "Their kids are light years ahead of them."
Richards, whose own children are ages 7 and 10, discounted the popular portrayal of gadget-happy teens who think nothing of posting X-rated selfies online or extending social media friend requests to people they've never actually met. While a 2013 poll by the Pew Research Center for the People & The Press found that one out of every five teenagers surveyed post their cellphone numbers online and 70 percent post where they live, a similarly large majority is adept at the use of privacy settings to block unwanted online intruders.
"Kids are both more concerned about their privacy than adults and more sophisticated about using the limited tools at their disposal (to maintain privacy)," Richards said. "But they're also more interested in using technology as a form of expression.
"They're also kids," he added. "And kids do dumb things."
Privacy advocate Rainey Reitman of the nonprofit Electronic Frontier Foundation called the law schools' efforts sorely needed.
"Kids are digital natives now," she said. "They grow up with the Internet, socializing through Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. We spent so many years helping kids navigate other social contexts...This helps them reconsider a lot of the privacy choices they make in their daily lives."
Many of the St. Michael middle-school students said they've already had "the talk" with their parents — not about the birds and bees, but instead the online do's and don'ts.
"By the time I was 7, my parents were telling me what you do online," said eighth-grader J.J. Adler, 14.
"I got the talk when I was 8," added classmate Douglas Keller.
"These guys have a really good understanding of what's out there and how the Internet has two sides, the good side and the evil side," Holohan said. "They understand that what they say and what they put out there can't be taken away. Once it's been said, you've crossed that boundary. It's like a living transcript."
Richards and his law school colleagues hope to refine and expand the program into public school systems, perhaps as soon as next year. Given the rapid pace of technological change, it promises to be an ever-evolving process.
"By the time you put together a curriculum, it's out of date," he said. "Kids in middle school haven't heard of (the once popular music sharing website) Myspace. They aren't paying attention to PowerPoints and they're not using Facebook anymore."
Peter Lang, a St. Michael music teacher, compared the school's role in teaching privacy to the safety lessons required for culinary students using sharp knives or driver's education pupils learning traffic laws before getting behind the wheel.
"As educators, we have a great responsibility to teach digital citizenship," he said. "Unlimited access to cellphones is like handing them the keys to the car and saying, 'Good luck.'"
Online: Fordham University privacy education, http://law.fordham.edu/privacyeducators
Follow Alan Scher Zagier on Twitter at http://twitter.com/azagier
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