The recent flap about companies and schools monitoring social media to catch students posting exam questions or answers raised a fundamental question: Do we have any privacy rights when we are in public?
On one hand, we are generally aware that when we are in public, anyone can see us or possibly overhear our conversations. When we post information online, it is possible for anyone to see it. But many of us also assume that if we are in a crowd, or if we post something online to our friends and followers, no one else is really paying attention. Most individuals can count on a degree of obscurity that leaves them with some feeling of privacy, even if not absolute, or somehow incomplete.
This imperfect sense of obscurity helps explain the public reaction when we focus on the ways we are monitored and tracked on social media.
Take Twitter, for instance. Twitter has been archiving every single tweet sent since 2006 with the Library of Congress. Twitter tells users that their tweets are public, and is even open about the fact that it sells the massive stream of tweets to companies and researchers. Users may think no one will notice or care about a single tweet, but that is not always the case. In fact, teachers commonly use Twitter to show students how photos posted to social media can quickly go viral. If any place online should be considered a public space, it is Twitter.
Yet, despite this, when the U.S. Department of Homeland Security planned a social-listening program in 2012 to scan online for threats of violence or other emergencies, the outcry was fierce. Critics were concerned that the program would listen not just for clear threats, but for any criticism of the government. The department implemented its program, but only after it made clear its criteria, to explain that officials would only be monitoring for appropriate threats.
Monitoring by companies also seems to trouble social-media users. A 2013 survey by Netbase and J.D. Power and Associates found that 32 percent of consumers have no idea companies are listening, and consumers still believe that they “should be able to talk about companies online without that company listening in,” according to the survey.
Despite these concerns, social-media monitoring by commercial enterprises is ubiquitous. Companies track for criticism of their brands, to understand consumer sentiment, and sometimes to respond to specific consumer problems. The Comcast staffer managing the @ComcastCares Twitter handle even became a minor Internet hero for his efforts to address concerns that consumers of that cable giant were venting about on Twitter.
However, the line between monitoring consumer sentiment in general and tracking individual customers is unclear and ill-defined. Companies need to understand public perceptions about both different types of online tracking and different sorts of consumer concerns.
It is clear that we don’t yet know how to strike the right balance between monitoring and tracking."
Monitoring by schools appears to be even more complex. Many schools and districts have reacted to school shootings, student suicides, and bullying concerns by connecting with social-media-monitoring companies to help them identify problems for which school personnel, parents, or even law enforcement may need to take action. Parents appear to have largely accepted this general practice. In fact, when tragedies have taken place, the first reaction has often been to scour social media to see whether there were clues that should have led to action or intervention.
Yet many parents had the opposite reaction to the recent revelation that Pearson—the educational testing and publishing company—was monitoring social media for any discussion by students of test questions on the Partnership for Assessment Readiness for College and Careers, or PARCC, a national standardized test. Pearson explained that its action was part of ensuring a fair testing environment. Further, the company was actually obligated by its state contracts and by test-certification standards to ensure that test questions weren’t being shared by students.
In this case, state education officials defended Pearson’s activity, and noted that monitoring for the sharing of test questions by students is a longtime practice conducted by most states. Some of the most vocal critics of the social monitoring were also strong critics of standardized testing, suggesting displeasure with standardized testing in general, as much as the privacy issues raised in their criticism.
Since the alternative of turning a blind eye to online evidence of sharing test questions or answers isn’t feasible, it appears that such monitoring will continue to be required by states and test providers. Policies that oversee who does the monitoring, and ensure that school officials handle decisions about any warnings or student discipline, will need to be made clear.
It is evident that new digital capabilities, along with the enhanced capacity to ubiquitously monitor and analyze individuals, are disrupting social norms. Some privacy thought leaders are developing a concept of “privacy through obscurity,” which explores the legal and ethical issues involving privacy in public spaces. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, the military agency famous for developing the Internet, has just launched a major effort to fund technologies that help secure online privacy through technology.
U.S. Reps. Luke Messer and Jared Polis have recently introduced student-privacy legislation backed by the White House, but the proposed bill focuses on ensuring that vendors don’t misuse student data, without reaching the broader challenge of how to promise privacy for data shared in public.
Our increasing capacity to monitor and analyze activities both online and off—to address real problems and to deter threats—can be beneficial. But it is clear that we don’t yet know how to strike the right balance between monitoring and tracking—while allowing individuals to vent, blow off steam, and otherwise freely express themselves online without feeling surveilled.
A version of this article appeared in the May 20, 2015 edition of Education Week as Is the Public Ever Really Private?