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Jun 13 2013

NSA Surveillance Revelations are a Teachable Moment (Updated)

Mozilla, Teaching Resources

As educators, mentors and citizens who care about digital literacy, you likely have some opinions on the recent National Security Agency (NSA) PRISM surveillance program revelations. We bet you have some resources to share too.

Mozilla has taken action, along with the Electronic Frontier Foundation and others, to launch a campaign called Stop Watching Us, which calls for an investigation into the US government’s use of surveillance tactics, particularly at the National Security Agency (NSA).

Alex Fowler, Mozilla Lead on Privacy and Public Policy, explains in this blog post:

Mozilla believes in an Internet where we do not have to fear that everything we do is being tracked, monitored and logged by either companies or governments. And we believe in a government whose actions are visible, transparent and accountable.

He talks about the various levels of exposure we face when we share information online, from using services that log activities (interactions with friends, purchases, games), to geolocative personalization, to personal over-sharing, to governments and other officials gaining access to our private data. This last level presents a problem, in that companies who may or may not share our data can be forced to, without our knowledge, based on a court order.

He continues:

There are a number of problems with this kind of electronic surveillance. First, the Internet is making it much easier to use these powers. There’s a lot more data to be had. The legal authority to conduct electronic surveillance has grown over the past few years, because the laws are written broadly. And, as users, we don’t have good ways of knowing whether the current system is being abused, because it’s all happening behind closed doors.

On Sunday night my colleague Dan Sinker tweeted this in light of the news: “When I go to the Washington Post to learn about gov data tracking, I’m hit by *fifty* commercial data trackers.”


The Washington Post subsequently wrote an article based on his Tweet to educate readers about the difference between government and commercial data tracking.

The story of commercial trackers and the details of the NSA leak are not fully analogous. But what the tool giving Dan this knowledge is providing is a way to visualize and make sense of how the web, data, tracking, your privacy and the intentions of others interact on the internet. Install Collusion on your Firefox browser and forget about it for a few weeks. When you look at it after a stretch of average web use, you will have quite few strands to follow as *you* have traveled through the tubes. These are the kind of digital “a-ha’s” that will ensure more informed digital citizens.

Mitchell Baker, Chair of Mozilla Foundation, posed the following questions in a blog post yesterday:

Now  is the moment to ask — do we care?  Do we care how much our government  watches us, tracks us without our knowing it? Do we care how the U.S.  government treats the citizens of friendly, allied states? Do we care if  other governments emulate the U.S. and gather this data? How do  businesses, organizations and individuals approach the US knowing the  scope of online activities that are being monitored? How much do other  governments do this — either to citizens or to foreign nationals? How do  we balance between civil rights and national security?

You may have already explored issues like privacy, personal data, censorship and digital citizenship with learners, and/or have created resources to help teach others about their digital footprint, Fair Use and related topics. We need them, learners need them, society needs them.

We’d love to help surface some of that thinking, to compile assets that explain or let people engage with these broad concepts so they can make more informed decisions or opinions related to these issues.

Here’s a start:

  • Hive NYC member Maurya Couvares from ScriptEd at TEDxNYED talks about teaching coding in schools, based on a model of training lawyers to mentor high school mock trial teams.
  • See where your data packets go in North America with IXmaps – this map site shows the physical locations of data centers and buildings where surveillance is presumed to happen
  • In NYC? We’re looking for mentors to work with youth for Young Rewired State NYC, a two-day design challenge where young coders will become more civically engaged as they build prototypes to solve real issues using NYC Open Data. We’re co-hosting with Museum of the Moving Image June 29-30.

Have one to add? Please add to this list we are compiling.

Or use Mozilla’s Thimble to create your own using our Hackable Activity Kit.

To have your voice heard and take action, join the Stop Watching Us campaign by:

  • Visiting and signing a petition that calls on legislators to provide a full accounting of the extent to which we’re being monitored.
  1. We don’t want an Internet where everything we do is secretly tracked by companies or governments. Join: StopWatching.Us #teachtheweb 
  2. Join Mozilla in calling on Congress to disclose how we’re being monitored. StopWatching.Us #teachtheweb
  3. Like You’ll love StopWatching.Us, a campaign to protect user data w/ @Mozilla, @EFF, @Reddit & 80+ other orgs

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