by Rigele Abilock and Debbie Abilock
The girl swallows the pill. Millions of tiny magnetic nanoparticles disperse into her bloodstream. They are her trusty scouts, tracking her body for early signs of cancer, heart disease, and other conditions. Her wearable wristband magnetically recalls the nanoparticles to her wrist veins for instant skin read-outs. She is constantly monitored by physicians and healthcare companies. In return, she receives the best chances of a long, healthy life.
This futuristic narrative could sit on your library shelf alongside Michael Crichton’s nanotechnology thriller, Prey. However, it belongs in non-fiction. Over one hundred scientists at Google’s life sciences spinout, Verily, are hard at work today on these health nanoparticles and associated wearable monitor. And it’s all in the name of human health…and big data…and profit.
Reconciling big data opportunities with healthcare privacy concerns is the same dilemma we face in education. Instructors want to support personalized learning, instruction, and classroom management with online offerings – but the data of underage patrons hangs in the balance. Just as health profiling based on longitudinal data collection raises red flags, so does educational performance profiling. Ethically and practically, youth will always be our Achilles Heel.
In our Knowledge Quest article, I Agree but Do I Know: Privacy and Student Data, we examine the evolving legislation around “safe” online educational products, as well as the responsibilities of school, parent, and technology vendor. We describe some simple ways to gauge the intentions of online vendors, and to look beneath the surface of online products designed for school use. We caution that vendors are often able to collect information for purposes far beyond those that directly benefit a school or library. Therefore, it is imperative for libraries to develop protocols for vetting online products, in order to protect the privacy of their patrons, especially students and youth.
While this may sound innocuous, vendors can learn about a young person’s school performance, personal life, and family situation and values. Vendors may also have rights – through a Terms of Service – to use personal information and/or preferences in ways that far exceed school or library purposes.
To evaluate how pervasively a vendor is collecting information, download a browser add-on that exposes the embedded but invisible code that collects data and tracking users’ behavior. For example, Disconnect Basic organizes blockers by category: advertising, analytics, social media and content, explaining why some trackers are blocked and others aren’t. Ghostery, a Firefox, Chrome, Safari, Internet Explorer, and Opera add-on, allows you to configure your preferences, and then shows you the trackers at each site so that you can decide to block or allow them. If do you use a tracker and it unearths names such as DoubleClick and ComScore, note that these “data brokers” are likely paying your vendor for user data that, in turn, can be resold.
When it comes to our personal consumption of online services and social media, we may quickly click “I Agree,” but our en loco parentis responsibilities increase when protecting the privacy of youth in our schools and libraries. Call a vendor directly if you have questions about privacy policies and data treatment. In our KQ article , we also share tips about ways to build awareness within a school or district. For the time being, the nanoparticles are under development but not yet on the market. Let’s practice before they’re (and we’re) for sale.