Lately, I've increasingly had trouble understanding why people worry about privacy, particularly online. Several people responded to Teachers + MySpace = Bad Idea? and Google spyware? Fine by me… with concerns about privacy. This includes people who were worried about their personal information floating around Google's servers as well as people who were concerned about invasion of privacy by employers.
Privacy really does have many meanings, especially in the Internet Age, but I maintain that it doesn't really even exist. Sure, we can reasonably expect that the credit card we use on Amazon won't find it's way into nefarious hands. We can also expect that we won't lose our jobs for what we do off the job (assuming it's not illegal and doesn't involve company equipment). That, however, is where true privacy, and our privacy rights really seem to stop (for better or worse).
I walked into my local grocery store this weekend to buy some supplies for my wife's birthday party. The minute I scanned my frequent shopper card (before I rang any items at those wonderful automated checkout counters), I received coupons for vegetarian frozen meals. "That's a new feature," I thought, and one that almost worked. I am a vegetarian and the coupon was for a particular set of products I buy frequently; if I hadn't been running late, I would have stepped out of line to grab the meals and use my coupon. Good to know that a Dutch conglomerate (who happens to own this grocery store) knows about my eating habits (and whether I've bought OTC birth control, and what kind of kitty litter my cat prefers). Again, I can reasonably expect that this information won't be sold to my insurance company so that they can evaluate my health risks (and therefore my premiums) but the point is that some pretty personal information is sitting in a database somewhere waiting to be mined.
Google stores my search information and uses it to give me text ads on which I will be most likely to click (the revenue from which allow it to do all sorts of things that I find really useful). Who cares? My ISP knows the sites I view, whether or not I searched for them. Surfing on the job? Then you can bet that someone, somewhere in your company can produce a list of sites you've viewed recently (or maybe even not-so-recently).
There was general grumbling and looks of concern when I discussed recent legislation regarding electronic communications in public schools and our need to potentially track emails, IMs, etc. We're still working on logistics, feasibility, and policy regarding this, but it was certainly a wakeup call for the staff. I'm pretty confident that none of them are doing anything untoward online, particularly with school equipment or resources. However, they need to know that, like any other employer (and perhaps more so because of our extensive interaction with minors), we have a right to keep tabs on the communications flowing through our network.
The first question a teacher asked was, "Should we just use our Hotmail accounts for everything, then?" My answer, of course, was no. Even Microsoft can have records subpoenaed. However, we live in a time when we must be cognizant that privacy is largely an illusion. K-12 educators especially must understand that, while electronic communications are indispensible and are certainly not going away, they are accountable for their actions online, just as they are in the classroom.