Fordham Law

Fordham Spearheads Online Privacy Classes in Middle Schools

Joel Reidenberg in The National Law Journal, October 29, 2013

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Law students are heading back to middle school this year—to teach kids about Internet privacy.

Fordham University School of Law’s Center for Law and Information Policy developed a pilot program last year designed to help kids between 11 and 14 understand and mitigate the privacy risks they encounter by using technology.

Now the program is going nationwide. More than a dozen law schools have committed to similar efforts in middle schools in their areas this spring and organizers hope to add more in the future.

Among schools with faculty or students joining the National Privacy Education Program are Yale Law School; Georgetown University Law Center; the University of California, Berkeley School of Law; and the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University.

“As online technologies become a key feature in young teens’ lives, parents and educators must teach teens about the privacy and safety implications of these technologies,” said Joel Reidenberg, founding director of the Fordham center. “We’ve designed a program and enlisted a team of volunteers to help educate children about how to use these devices safely so they don’t make mistakes that can impact them for many years.”

A survey by the Pew Research Center found that teens share more information about themselves on social media than ever before. Nearly all of the teens surveyed—91 percent—reported posting photos of themselves online. Fifty-three percent post their email addresses and 20 percent their cellphone numbers. One third said they interact via social media with people they have never met in person.

The Fordham center developed the program with a $75,000 in cy pres award in a settlement in the class action Valentine et al v. NebuAd Inc., which involved claims that targeted online advertising violated the privacy of Internet users. Relatively few pro bono or public service opportunities exist for law students in the technology realm, so the center decided to create one with the help of Jordan Kovnot, a Fordham alumnus who spent last year as a privacy fellow at the law school.

“We wanted to target middle school because that’s right when kids are starting to get online and use social media,” Reidenberg said. “They are experimenting and learning but they aren’t yet set in what they think about the world.”

The program aims to get them to think seriously about the amount and type of information they make available online, and about the damage it can do to themselves and other people.

The program features five lessons covering privacy basics; passwords and behavioral ads; navigating social media; understanding Wi-Fi and facial recognition; and managing a digital reputation. Rather than lecture, the students engage in discussions and learn from each other.

The program was launched in a 7th grade classroom at a public school in New York City last spring. “Many teens believe that because they are communicating through their own personal accounts, phones and computers, that it is private,” said Nichole Gagnon, whose class was chosen for the pilot. “While interacting with the law students, they soon realized that nothing that is public can be private at the same time.”

Fordham is making its curriculum available to all the participating law schools, and Reidenberg expects law students at other schools to add their own elements. Eventually, he would like to see middle school teachers themselves incorporate the program’s lessons into their own classroom instruction, for the widest exposure.