September 28, 2020

Private Search Crash Course for the (Virtual) Classroom

Educating students about their right to take back their privacy online

It’s not about what you have to hide, it’s about what you have to protect. Many Americans are unaware of their personal right to online privacy. On a national level, this presents concern. In its “Right to Privacy in the Digital Age” resolution, the United Nations General Assembly ruled “the same rights people have offline must also be protected online.” (https://news.un.org/en/story/2013/12/458232-general-assembly-backs-right-privacy-digital-age) Americans may recognize personalized query results and online filter bubbles; however, they falsely understand this as the norm the price attached to the digital era that dictates our modern existence. As a result, and despite the UN ruling, data security has become less of a concern, especially with regard to Gen Z and Millennial college students. “Of all generations, Millennials are the group most likely to say their data are being kept private” (https://news.gallup.com/businessjournal/192401/data-security-not-big-concern-millennials.aspx). We see this as both an issue and an opportunity. 

With Startpage’s Private Search Engine 101 lesson plan, we hope to educate university students about how their personal search data is collected, used, why they should care, and what they can do to take control. With this course, we underscore the importance of data privacy, teaching students that utilizing a private search engine can be an easy and implementable adjustment to their everyday lives. 

What does the Internet know about you and why should you care? 

Every time you type a search term into your search engine, it compiles that information into its database. Take a moment to think about how often you ask the Internet a question. Ten times per day? Twenty? One hundred? 

Furthermore, what you may not realize is that every time you search on a non-private search engine, it’s also collecting and storing your personal identifiable information (PII) data. Examples of PII data include your device type, GPS location, IP address, billing information, phone number, and so on (https://www.dol.gov/general/ppii).

This data is then used to target you with ads, place price trackers on you, and serve you curated content meant to influence your opinion. All of your personal data is continuously compounded into your digital profile. This means that without your consent, Big Tech is accruing your level of education, mental state, political preferences, financial needs, sexual orientation, and propensity to spend— all based on your online activity. You are then presented with search results accordingly, meaning Big Tech is deciding what information you receive. In a world where knowledge is power, people should be aware that there exists another option to this seemingly inescapable filter bubble. 

What is Startpage’s private search engine, how does it work, and how can you spread the word?

Startpage is the world’s most private search engine which anonymizes your search query while still allowing you to access results directly from Google. After you enter your search into Startpage, we strip all of your personal data and send it to a cloud server which then communicates with Google for processing. The cloud, or premise, server creates a privacy wall. Since it has zero information about you, the cloud server cannot deliver you personalized results. Therefore, by utilizing Startpage, you will receive the same, unfiltered information as anyone else in the world. 

We further detail our anonymizing process as part of the Private Search Engine 101 lesson plan.

We have successfully brought the lesson plan to Professor Laura Brandimarte’s Social and Ethical Issues of the Internet course at the University of Arizona’s Eller College of Management. From Professor Brandimarte:

It was a privilege to have Startpage reps speak in my class! Sometimes certain concepts are difficult to grasp in theory, but the Private Search 101 module really helped students understand what being tracked online means and implies. At the same time, it made them realize that an ethical alternative to the predominant business model nowadays (track more, collect more) is not only possible, but it can also be profitable for the service provider. The whole experience, which was very interactive and applied, was refreshing for my students.”

Numerous studies point to the conclusion that people lack the necessary education about the importance of protecting their personal data online. A 2019 survey concludes “younger generations were found to be much less concerned about protecting their data than other generations. Twice as many Gen Xers (66 percent) and Baby Boomers (62 percent) thought it was important that all of their IoT (Internet of Things) devices communicate with one another securely than Millennials (33 percent)” (https://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/new-study-finds-millennials-concerned-about-privacy-but-lax-on-security-300799596.html). Statistics such as these illustrate the importance of teaching young people about maintaining their personal privacy, especially in an increasingly public and interconnected world. They deserve to know how the exploitation of their data can negatively affect them long-term when purchasing a house, maintaining their credit score, applying to jobs, and voting in future elections.

Our goal is to collaborate with as many university professors as possible to relay this course to students. We hope to provide them with the necessary information, allowing them the opportunity to take back their right to online privacy, if they so choose. 

Your data, your choice. 

With the current state of the world continuously shifting toward the virtual atmosphere, knowledge about personal data protection is more important now than ever. We created this lesson plan to help give students a better understanding of private search. If you are interested in bringing this information to your classroom, we would be happy to provide you with further details. Reach out to privacyplease@startpage.com with any questions. 

Privacy Pro Tip: When using tools like Zoom, teachers should avoid creating consumer accounts and instead open an education account, which has a different privacy policy for student data. (https://zoom.us/docs/en-us/childrens-privacy.html)

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