Take the Cambridge Assessment English website, for example. When you connect to the site, you will see, at the bottom of the screen, a familiar (to people in Europe, at least) notification about the site’s use of cookies: the cookies consent.

You probably trust the site, so ignore the notification and quickly move on to find the resource you are looking for. But if you did click on hyperlinked ‘set cookies’, what would you find? The first link takes you to the ‘Cookie policy’ where you will be told that ‘We use cookies principally because we want to make our websites and mobile applications user-friendly, and we are interested in anonymous user behaviour. Generally our cookies don’t store sensitive or personally identifiable information such as your name and address or credit card details’. Scroll down, and you will find out more about the kind of cookies that are used. Besides the cookies that are necessary to the functioning of the site, you will see that there are also ‘third party cookies’. These are explained as follows: ‘Cambridge Assessment works with third parties who serve advertisements or present offers on our behalf and personalise the content that you see. Cookies may be used by those third parties to build a profile of your interests and show you relevant adverts on other sites. They do not store personal information directly but use a unique identifier in your browser or internet device. If you do not allow these cookies, you will experience less targeted content’.

This is not factually inaccurate: personal information is not stored directly. However, it is extremely easy for this information to be triangulated with other information to identify you personally. In addition to the data that you generate by having cookies on your device, Cambridge Assessment will also directly collect data about you. Depending on your interactions with Cambridge Assessment, this will include ‘your name, date of birth, gender, contact data including your home/work postal address, email address and phone number, transaction data including your credit card number when you make a payment to us, technical data including internet protocol (IP) address, login data, browser type and technology used to access this website’. They say they may share this data ‘with other people and/or businesses who provide services on our behalf or at our request’ and ‘with social media platforms, including but not limited to Facebook, Google, Google Analytics, LinkedIn, in pseudonymised or anonymised forms’.

In short, Cambridge Assessment may hold a huge amount of data about you and they can, basically, do what they like with it.

The cookie and privacy policies are fairly standard, as is the lack of transparency in the phrasing of them. Rather more transparency would include, for example, information about which particular ad trackers you are giving your consent to. This information can be found with a browser extension tool like Ghostery, and these trackers can be blocked. As you’ll see below, there are 5 ad trackers on this site. This is rather more than other sites that English language teachers are likely to go to. ETS-TOEFL has 4, Macmillan English and Pearson have 3, CUP ELT and the British Council Teaching English have 1, OUP ELT, IATEFL, BBC Learning English and Trinity College have none. I could only find TESOL, with 6 ad trackers, which has more. The blogs for all these organisations invariably have more trackers than their websites.

The use of numerous ad trackers is probably a reflection of the importance that Cambridge Assessment gives to social media marketing. There is a research paper, produced by Cambridge Assessment, which outlines the significance of big data and social media analytics. They have far more Facebook followers (and nearly 6 million likes) than any other ELT page, and they are proud of their #1 ranking in the education category of social media. The amount of data that can be collected here is enormous and it can be analysed in myriad ways using tools like Ubervu, Yomego and Hootsuite.

A little more transparency, however, would not go amiss. According to a report in Vox, Apple has announced that some time next year ‘iPhone users will start seeing a new question when they use many of the apps on their devices: Do they want the app to follow them around the internet, tracking their behavior?’ Obviously, Google and Facebook are none too pleased about this and will be fighting back. The implications for ad trackers and online advertising, more generally, are potentially huge. I wrote to Cambridge Assessment about this and was pleased to hear that ‘Cambridge Assessment are currently reviewing the process by which we obtain users consent for the use of cookies with the intention of moving to a much more transparent model in the future’. Let’s hope that other ELT organisations are doing the same.

You may be less bothered than I am by the thought of dozens of ad trackers following you around the net so that you can be served with more personalized ads. But the digital profile about you, to which these cookies contribute, may include information about your ethnicity, disabilities and sexual orientation. This profile is auctioned to advertisers when you visit some sites, allowing them to show you ‘personalized’ adverts based on the categories in your digital profile. Contrary to EU regulations, these categories may include whether you have cancer, a substance-abuse problem, your politics and religion (as reported in Fortune https://fortune.com/2019/01/28/google-iab-sensitive-profiles/ ).

But it’s not these cookies that are the most worrying aspect about our lack of digital privacy. It’s the sheer quantity of personal data that is stored about us. Every time we ask our students to use an app or a platform, we are asking them to divulge huge amounts of data. With ClassDojo, for example, this includes names, usernames, passwords, age, addresses, photographs, videos, documents, drawings, or audio files, IP addresses and browser details, clicks, referring URL’s, time spent on site, and page views (Manolev et al., 2019; see also Williamson, 2019).

It is now widely recognized that the ‘consent’ that is obtained through cookie policies and other end-user agreements is largely spurious. These consent agreements, as Sadowski (2019) observes, are non-negotiated, and non-negotiable; you either agree or you are denied access. What’s more, he adds, citing one study, it would take 76 days, working for 8 hours a day, to read the privacy policies a person typically encounters in a year. As a result, most of us choose not to choose when we accept online services (Cobo, 2019: 25). We have little, if any, control over how the data that is collected is used (Birch et al., 2020). More importantly, perhaps, when we ask our students to sign up to an educational app, we are asking / telling them to give away their personal data, not just ours. They are unlikely to fully understand the consequences of doing so.

The extent of this ignorance is also now widely recognized. In the UK, for example, two reports (cited by Sander, 2020) indicate that ‘only a third of people know that data they have not actively chosen to share has been collected’ (Doteveryone, 2018: 5), and that ‘less than half of British adult internet users are aware that apps collect their location and information on their personal preferences’ (Ofcom, 2019: 14).

The main problem with this has been expressed by programmer and activist, Richard Stallman, in an interview with New York magazine (Kulwin, 2018): Companies are collecting data about people. The data that is collected will be abused. That’s not an absolute certainty, but it’s a practical, extreme likelihood, which is enough to make collection a problem.

The abuse that Smallman is referring to can come in a variety of forms. At the relatively trivial end is the personalized advertising. Much more serious is the way that data aggregation companies will scrape data from a variety of sources, building up individual data profiles which can be used to make significant life-impacting decisions, such as final academic grades or whether one is offered a job, insurance or credit (Manolev et al., 2019). Cathy O’Neil’s (2016) best-selling ‘Weapons of Math Destruction’ spells out in detail how this abuse of data increases racial, gender and class inequalities. And after the revelations of Edward Snowden, we all know about the routine collection by states of huge amounts of data about, well, everyone. Whether it’s used for predictive policing or straightforward repression or something else, it is simply not possible for younger people, our students, to know what personal data they may regret divulging at a later date.

Digital educational providers may try to reassure us that they will keep data private, and not use it for advertising purposes, but the reassurances are hollow. These companies may change their terms and conditions further down the line, and examples exist of when this has happened (Moore, 2018: 210). But even if this does not happen, the data can never be secure. Illegal data breaches and cyber attacks are relentless, and education ranked worst at cybersecurity out of 17 major industries in one recent analysis (Foresman, 2018). One report suggests that one in five US schools and colleges have fallen victim to cyber-crime. Two weeks ago, I learnt (by chance, as I happened to be looking at my security settings on Chrome) that my passwords for Quizlet, Future Learn, Elsevier and Science Direct had been compromised by a data breach. To get a better understanding of the scale of data breaches, you might like to look at the UK’s IT Governance site, which lists detected and publicly disclosed data breaches and cyber attacks each month (36.6 million records breached in August 2020). If you scroll through the list, you’ll see how many of them are educational sites. You’ll also see a comment about how leaky organisations have been throughout lockdown … because they weren’t prepared for the sudden shift online.

Recent years have seen a growing consensus that ‘it is crucial for language teaching to […] encompass the digital literacies which are increasingly central to learners’ […] lives’ (Dudeney et al., 2013). Most of the focus has been on the skills that are needed to use digital media. There also appears to be growing interest in developing critical thinking skills in the context of digital media (e.g. Peachey, 2016) – identifying fake news and so on. To a much lesser extent, there has been some focus on ‘issues of digital identity, responsibility, safety and ethics when students use these technologies’ (Mavridi, 2020a: 172). Mavridi (2020b: 91) also briefly discusses the personal risks of digital footprints, but she does not have the space to explore more fully the notion of critical data literacy. This literacy involves an understanding of not just the personal risks of using ‘free’ educational apps and platforms, but of why they are ‘free’ in the first place. Sander (2020b) suggests that this literacy entails ‘an understanding of datafication, recognizing the risks and benefits of the growing prevalence of data collection, analytics, automation, and predictive systems, as well as being able to critically reflect upon these developments. This includes, but goes beyond the skills of, for example, changing one’s social media settings, and rather constitutes an altered view on the pervasive, structural, and systemic levels of changing big data systems in our datafied societies’.

In my next two posts, I will, first of all, explore in more detail the idea of critical data literacy, before suggesting a range of classroom resources.

(I posted about privacy in March 2014, when I looked at the connections between big data and personalized / adaptive learning. In another post, September 2014, I looked at the claims of the CEO of Knewton who bragged that his company had five orders of magnitude more data about you than Google has. … We literally have more data about our students than any company has about anybody else about anything, and it’s not even close. You might find both of these posts interesting.)

References

Birch, K., Chiappetta, M. & Artyushina, A. (2020). ‘The problem of innovation in technoscientific capitalism: data rentiership and the policy implications of turning personal digital data into a private asset’ Policy Studies, 41:5, 468-487, DOI: 10.1080/01442872.2020.1748264

Cobo, C. (2019). I Accept the Terms and Conditions. https://adaptivelearninginelt.files.wordpress.com/2020/01/41acf-cd84b5_7a6e74f4592c460b8f34d1f69f2d5068.pdf

Doteveryone. (2018). People, Power and Technology: The 2018 Digital Attitudes Report. https://attitudes.doteveryone.org.uk

Dudeney, G., Hockly, N. & Pegrum, M. (2013). Digital Literacies. Harlow: Pearson Education

Foresman, B. (2018). Education ranked worst at cybersecurity out of 17 major industries. Edscoop, December 17, 2018. https://edscoop.com/education-ranked-worst-at-cybersecurity-out-of-17-major-industries/

Kulwin, K. (2018). F*ck Them. We Need a Law’: A Legendary Programmer Takes on Silicon Valley, New York Intelligencer, 2018, https://nymag.com/intelligencer/2018/04/richard-stallman-rms-on-privacy-data-and-free-software.html

Manolev, J., Sullivan, A. & Slee, R. (2019). ‘Vast amounts of data about our children are being harvested and stored via apps used by schools’ EduReseach Matters, February 18, 2019. https://www.aare.edu.au/blog/?p=3712

Mavridi, S. (2020a). Fostering Students’ Digital Responsibility, Ethics and Safety Skills (Dress). In Mavridi, S. & Saumell, V. (Eds.) Digital Innovations and Research in Language Learning. Faversham, Kent: IATEFL. pp. 170 – 196

Mavridi, S. (2020b). Digital literacies and the new digital divide. In Mavridi, S. & Xerri, D. (Eds.) English for 21st Century Skills. Newbury, Berks.: Express Publishing. pp. 90 – 98

Moore, M. (2018). Democracy Hacked. London: Oneworld

Ofcom. (2019). Adults: Media use and attitudes report [Report]. https://www.ofcom.org.uk/__data/assets/pdf_file/0021/149124/adults-media-use-and-attitudes-report.pdf

O’Neil, C. (2016). Weapons of Math Destruction. London: Allen Lane

Peachey, N. (2016). Thinking Critically through Digital Media. http://peacheypublications.com/

Sadowski, J. (2019). ‘When data is capital: Datafication, accumulation, and extraction’ Big Data and Society 6 (1) https://doi.org/10.1177%2F2053951718820549

Sander, I. (2020a). What is critical big data literacy and how can it be implemented? Internet Policy Review, 9 (2). DOI: 10.14763/2020.2.1479 https://www.econstor.eu/bitstream/10419/218936/1/2020-2-1479.pdf

Sander, I. (2020b). Critical big data literacy tools—Engaging citizens and promoting empowered internet usage. Data & Policy, 2: e5 doi:10.1017/dap.2020.5

Williamson, B. (2019). ‘Killer Apps for the Classroom? Developing Critical Perspectives on ClassDojo and the ‘Ed-tech’ Industry’ Journal of Professional Learning, 2019 (Semester 2) https://cpl.asn.au/journal/semester-2-2019/killer-apps-for-the-classroom-developing-critical-perspectives-on-classdojo

Comments
  1. nmwhiteport says:

    “The only free cheese in the mousetrap.”

    Then again, there’s nothing to stop a paid-for online subscription service making additional revenue with your data in just the same way as free access sites do.

  2. […] Critical data literacy #1: our data and ELT websites […]

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