Does It Matter Who Has Your Data? (9-12)
Family Tip Sheets
- track: when companies collect information about you based on your online behavior
- target: when companies tailor content to you based on the information they have collected about you
- demographic: common categories of the population, such as age, gender, and race
- cookies: data files that are stored on your computer when you visit certain sites, which are often used by companies to identify repeat customers and personalize visitors’ experiences
Note: Key elements of this lesson are based on Eli Pariser’s insightful book, The Filter Bubble (2011). This book would make excellent background reading for teachers and students alike.
Students consider the ways websites and companies collect data online and utilize it to personalize content for their users, as well as consider companies’ motives in doing so.
Students then break into small groups and, using the Same Search Student Handout, examine the fictionalized Web results of two people with different demographic backgrounds who search on the same topic. Based on this analysis, they explore the benefits and risks of online tracking and targeting, and learn strategies for managing what happens with their own online data.
Students will be able to ...
- recognize that companies collect several types of information about them when they go online.
- think critically about the benefits and risks of online tracking and targeting, and of the content that is offered based on collected data.
- learn strategies for managing what happens with their information online.
Materials and Preparation
- Copy the Same Search Student Handout, one for every four or five students.
- Review the Same Search Student Handout – Teacher Version.
- Optional: Preview the videos “Online Targeting and Tracking Animation” and “Husband Sees Wife on Facebook Dating Ad” and prepare to show one of them to students.
- Prepare a chart as shown on Question 3 of the Same Search Student Handout – Teacher Version, with room to fill in class responses.
ASK: What kinds of information about yourself do you share online?
Students will likely respond that they share information about themselves in online profiles and on social networking sites.
ASK: What else do you do online that reflects who you are?
Students should understand that the searches they perform and websites they choose to visit also reveal information about themselves.
TEACH the Key Vocabulary terms track and target. Explain to students that when they input information into a website – such as profile information or search terms – they are telling that site something about themselves. The companies that run the sites track this data. They then use it to target students with specific content, especially advertising related to their interests.
EXPLAIN that you are going to discuss the kinds of data companies collect about users, and the benefits and risks of companies having this information.
Optional: SHOW students the video “Does It Matter Who Has Your Data?” or the video “Husband Sees Wife on Facebook Dating Ad.” Elicit student reactions, and ask how it might relate to the idea of targeting and tracking.
EXPLAIN that one of the first companies to track and target users online was Amazon.com. It created technology that could match people’s preferences with other users whose buying habits were like their own, and make recommendations on that basis. This kind of targeting worked, and Amazon’s sales grew rapidly. More recently, Amazon began to sell e-books (electronic books). With e-books, the company can track information about what you read, what pages you skip, and what you highlight. Amazon then uses this information to figure out what books to recommend to you (Pariser, The Filter Bubble, 2011, p. 29). Other companies, such as Netflix (which offers movies that you can order by DVD or stream online) and Pandora (which allows you to rate music in real time), have a similar model: Based on your choices, they try to determine your tastes. Then they recommend products that reflect those tastes.
ASK: What do you think are companies’ goals in tracking your information?
Students should understand that tracking allows companies to target them with personalized content, usually to tailor their experience on the website, or to deliver advertising aimed at them.
ASK: What do you think of tracking and targeting?
Some students may believe that this is an invasion of their privacy or makes them feel uncomfortable; others might find that personalized information is useful to them or makes them feel special.
ASK: Do you think it is okay for companies to collect information about you?
Opinions will vary. Explain that you will debate this issue later in the lesson.
DEFINE the Key Vocabulary term demographic.
DIVIDE students into groups of four or five.
DISTRIBUTE the Same Search Student Handout, one per group, and have students read the directions.
EXPLAIN to students that they are going to examine the search results of two people, Cole and Lola. Both of them want to buy boots and are looking for discounts online. Both of them have entered the word “boots” into a search engine. The results that each one gets are listed in the handout.
ALLOW students 10 minutes to review the Web results for Cole and Lola, and discuss the questions.
LEAD a discussion with students using the guidance in the Same Search Student Handout — Teacher Version. After inviting groups to share their responses to Questions 1 and 2, work as a class to fill in the chart prepared for Question 3. Sample responses to the questions are included in the handout.
DISCUSS the idea that students may sometimes want to share information on sites that they know and trust, while preventing other sites from getting their data. The important thing is to make their own choices about how and where they share their personal data, and about how this data is used.
INTRODUCE students to the idea that there are things they can do to help protect their personal information. Let students know that they will be learning some strategies that can help them limit the data that companies collect.
DEFINE the Key Vocabulary term cookies.
DISCUSS with students each of the following tips for limiting data collection. Invite volunteers to explain how and why each item might affect how much personal information companies are able to acquire.
- Do not provide email addresses to mailing lists unless you need to do so.
- Unsubscribe from listserves or websites that you do not regularly use.
- Limit the number of times you click on ads, no matter what they are for.
- Avoid “too good to be true” products, deals, and opportunities. Once you have confirmed your email address, they are likely to sell your email address to other companies.
- Make sure you have antivirus software, and that it also protects against spyware, programs that secretly collect your data.
- Disable Internet “cookies,” so that companies cannot put tracking devices on your computer. (Sites will not be able to remember your preferences as well this way, which is something to consider.)
- Investigate computer applications that block pop-up ads.
- Examine sites’ privacy policies before you reveal any information on the site; avoid using sites that will share your data with others.
EXPLAIN to students that the techniques companies use will change over time, so the best strategy they can use is to think critically and conduct research about different companies and practices. The Privacy Rights Clearinghouse has helpful information on this issue.
You can use these questions to assess your students’ understanding of the lesson objectives. You may want to ask students to reflect in writing on one of the questions, using a journal or an online blog/wiki.
ASK: What information about your demographic group and online behavior might websites collect about you?
- Gender, age, ethnicity, location
- Political or religious views
- Likes and dislikes
- Subjects or activities that interest you
- Products you look at or buy online
ASK: What are the pros and cons of online tracking and targeting?
Students should understand that tracking and targeting enable websites to provide search results and advertising that may be of greater interest to them. On the other hand, these practices may limit the results they get when they perform online searches, and they may represent an invasion of privacy.
ASK: What are three ways you might help prevent companies from collecting information about you online that you may not want them to have?
- Limit the amount of personal information you give out on websites
- Disable cookies
- Install antivirus software
- Read site privacy policies
Have students perform a Web search at the same time as someone else. The other person should be in a different place, so they can test how location plays a role in the results. They should then compare their Web results and document them using a spreadsheet or a form in Google Docs. Did they get the same results? If not, how did their results differ, and why do they think that is so? Guide them to choose search terms that are appropriate, but ones that might yield interesting responses.
Note: You may wish to have students do the homework assignment as preparation for the lesson. In that case, you can encourage students to make observations about the ads they have recorded as part of the lesson introduction.
Have students work at home or in the library to track the advertising they see while performing typical online activities. Instruct them to first log in to and click around on Facebook or a similar site, and write down which ads appear. Then students should use Google, Bing, or Yahoo! to perform two or three searches related to a specific topic that interests them (such as a favorite book, film, sports team, or activity) and again write down whatever ads come up. Have students report back to the class with their lists of ads, and encourage them to make observations about how the ads relate to the interests they listed in their profiles or used in their search terms.
Alignment with Standards
- grades 9-10: RL.4, RL.10, RI.4, RI.7, RI.10, W.4, W.7, W.8, SL.1a-d, SL.2, SL.3, SL.5, L.6
- grades 11-12: RL.4, RL.10, RI.4, RI.7, RI.10, W.4, W.7, W.8, SL.1a-d, SL.2, SL.3, SL.5, L.6
NETS•S: 1a, 1c, 1d, 2a, 2d, 3b, 3d, 4a, 4c, 4d, 5a, 5b, 6a