Homeschool Information Library
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Homeschooling Perspectives on Privacy Issues
This essay, by Larry and Susan Kaseman, was originally published in their
Taking Charge political action column in the March-April 1995 issue
of Home Education Magazine.
Concerns about protecting privacy are increasing, especially because computer technology is making possible the storage and dissemination of so much data about ordinary people, not just the rich and famous. As homeschoolers, we are in a unique position. Our homeschooling gives us a special label and visibility in many databases. Some "educational technology" being marketed to homeschoolers threatens privacy. But at the same time, our unique perspective on society allows us to clearly see and readily question some of the developments that are taking place whose problems may not be as readily apparent to others.
This column will consider some privacy issues from a homeschooling perspective and suggest actions that homeschoolers may decide to take.
Why Privacy Concerns Are Becoming More Serious
Privacy issues are perhaps most easily understood in the context of major changes that are occurring within our society. Therefore, this column will begin with a look at some of these changes.
The economic base of our society has been changing with increasing speed. After thousands of years of relative stability when the economy was based on agriculture, the Industrial Revolution moved us to an industrial economy. Then during the 1940's and 50's, the service sector became increasingly important, and economists began talking about our "service economy." Of course many people still earn their living by working in industry, and some in agriculture, but an increasing number and proportion of people work in the service sector, including the areas of health, education, welfare, food processing, transportation, banking and finance, insurance, and entertainment. Since the 70's, the economy has been shifting again as increasing emphasis is being placed on information and increasing numbers of people are working in the areas of marketing and advertising; media and information transfer; higher education; and the use of computers and VCRs for entertainment and education. Increasing emphasis and value are also being placed on specialization (rather than working with whole people, whole families, and whole communities) and on experts with formal training and credentials (rather than respecting and supporting experiences and insights of ordinary people).
Privacy issues are not new. They are an intrinsic and inevitable part of the balance that any organized society must find and maintain between individual freedom and the common good. However, privacy issues are becoming much more crucial as the information sector of our economy grows. Among the reasons for this:
* For the first time in history, means are available to quickly and easily organize and transmit information about large numbers of ordinary people. Personal information is being exchanged through a growing and increasingly complex and interconnected network of technological devices.
Computers are a relatively new and obvious way in which much more information about individuals can be collected, organized, arranged, stored, and exchanged with others than was possible without computers. But even a seemingly simple, widespread, friendly, helpful aid to communication that most people accept without question has become part of this network: namely, the telephone. Recently developed uses for telephones include Caller ID and the use of telephone numbers to locate, classify, and target people for additional information, services, screenings, treatments, products, and requests.
Caller ID enables subscribers receiving an incoming call to see on a screen the number of the telephone from which the incoming call was placed and the name of the person listed with that number. This information is provided without permission from the person placing the call. To be sure, privacy concerns have forced telephone companies to provide a means by which a caller can cancel Caller ID so that the person receiving the call cannot get the number of the telephone being used. But callers have to remember and be willing to take an extra step each time they make a telephone call in order to protect their privacy. Privacy issues have also gotten so skewed that the telephone company markets Caller ID by claiming that it protects the privacy of people receiving calls by alerting them to calls they may wish to respond to in a certain way or avoid altogether.
Unfortunately, even our telephone number itself can compromise our privacy. As Anne Wells Branscomb points out in Who Owns Information?
It seems to have gone unnoticed that the telephone number is becoming a more universal identifier, at least for commercial purposes, than the social security number. Whenever direct mail marketers take your orders through an 800 number, they request your telephone number, "just in case we need to call you about your order." In fact, it is used to gain access to your file when you call again. With the new automated number identification devices, such merchants can use the ten-digit number to access your files and your records of purchase without even asking for the number. Most of them seek, in addition, your ZIP Code, since this can be correlated to give very accurate data about lifestyles, real estate values in the neighborhood, and purchasing practices. (p. 48)
In other words, merchants and others can develop files on us based on our telephone numbers. Then in one more place there is a file on us with information that we may wish were private. But instead the information is now ready to be sold to another commercial operation or anyone who is willing to pay for the information, including attorneys, doctors, institutions of higher education, insurance companies, social service agencies, etc. It is also worth noting that when a device as simple and commonplace as a telephone can be used to invade our privacy in ways for which we have not given our permission, privacy issues are serious indeed. (It could be argued that telephones have always been an invasion of privacy, but in the past, people choosing to have telephones in their homes were aware of this possibility and could control interruptions either by refusing to answer or by hanging up.)
To be sure, many people claim that there are advantages to computers and other advanced technology. Consider just one quite dramatic example: Police can locate the telephone from which someone has called 911 even if the caller cannot manage to provide this information. And it does seem a bit hypocritical for authors to complain about computers when they write their column on a computer and have it published in a magazine that is laid out and printed by means of computers. The main point we the authors are trying to make is that as citizens in an information economy, we need to be aware of the vast as well as the positive ways in which information technology is impacting our lives. In other words, we the authors are not opposed to the use of computers as helpful tools. Our goal is not to blame our problems on computers, or telephones, or any other piece of technology. Rather, we want people to be aware that computers can be and are currently being used in negative ways that are costing us our privacy and impacting our lives in other ways as well.
* One of the biggest and most lucrative parts of the information economy is the huge industry that handles direct marketing to homes, and tries to sell services and products to people who haven't even left their own homes. "The average consumer is on approximately a hundred mailing lists and in at least fifty databases. Many of these lists are made up of public information in the public domain, required for public purposes and from which our names cannot be removed." (Who Owns Information? p. 11)
The direct marketing industry operates by gathering information about people that they have not given their permission to have released, including information that in the past has been generally acknowledged to be private. Information is freely circulated about an individual's credit rating, income level (estimated from cost of houses in their neighborhood and/or credit card purchases if it's not available directly from the individual), purchasing habits (from credit cards, grocery store discount cards, etc.), health records, educational accomplishments and records, job histories, and psychiatric records.
Some people would no doubt claim that direct marketing is an appropriate way for businesses to try to sell their services and products in a free market economy. Clearly direct marketing was set up to market services and products, not to harass ordinary citizens by gathering and disseminating private information about them. Nevertheless, the privacy of individuals is being so strongly violated by this approach to marketing that many people feel it should be questioned.
* Computers and other new technological developments are increasingly being used to collect, store and disseminate information on individuals as a means of social control. For example, specific categories or types of information are being collected that professionals feel will help them identify families that are "at risk," more likely to get into trouble with the law, require special services, have difficulty with school, or pose a health or financial risk. Computers provide the means by which massive amounts of data about individuals can be collected, organized, and retrieved.
To make matters more serious, new systems of collaboration are currently being put in place in many states. Legislation has made it legal for government agencies working in the areas of education, health, social services, and justice to share information about individuals. (See our column in Home Education Magazine - May-June, 1993, "' We're the Government and We're Here to Help You' The Trouble With Collaboration" pp. 20-25.)
Imagine, for example, two young men suspected of truancy. A computer check reveals that one is the son of a prominent physician and the other received a speeding ticket 6 months ago, or comes from a family that was on welfare for three months when a parent was laid off eight years ago, or has a sibling who has been diagnosed as "learning disabled." Theoretically both these young men are presumed innocent until proven guilty and are entitled to equal treatment under the law. But realistically, isn't there an unfair chance that they will not be treated the same way by officials who are operating under enormous pressure from an increasingly fearful society? Do we really want to abandon civil liberties and the idea that America is a land of opportunity in favor of a system that is prejudiced against anyone who has a previous record of anything? Where is the protection for someone whose record is incorrect? It is extremely difficult to correct an error once it has gotten into a computer system, and if the information has spread beyond its original source, correcting the information may be impossible.
To be sure, every society needs a certain amount of organization and predictability in order to survive. Some kind of social control is required to achieve and maintain this order. One of the major ways in which social control is being achieved in our society is through the collection and spread of private information. Serious questions need to be raised as to whether this is an appropriate way to achieve order or whether the cost is too great to our civil liberties, individual freedom, opportunities, and our involvement in society as an engaged citizenry.
In short, issues surrounding privacy are increasing in part because economic interests and public policy are placing more importance on social control than on the rights and freedoms of individuals and because technology is increasingly being used as a means of social control.
Role of Homeschoolers in Privacy Issues
"All well and good," some readers may be thinking. "But what does this have to do with home education?"
Privacy issues are of special concern to homeschoolers for several reasons, including the following:
* As homeschoolers we have a unique perspective on our society. We have not simply bought into the system. Instead, we have important, direct, and personal experience in questioning a common institution that most people trust or at least accept and participate in, namely, conventional schools.
But we have done more than examine and question. We have worked to establish and maintain our independence from conventional schools, which play a dominant role in a society that increasingly devalues privacy. We know how to be independent, and we understand the benefits of being independent. Our experience puts us in a good position to show others the importance of freedom and how to work for it.
In fact, through the act of homeschooling, we are making clear the importance of taking time for reflection and of finding time to spend with our families, relating on a personal level, not through computers and databases. We are distancing ourselves from systems that number, label, sort, and discriminate against people and demonstrating that there is another way for people to relate to each other.
Therefore, our experience with homeschooling puts us in a strong position to help others question what is happening in our society as privacy is sacrificed to the use of technology for direct marketing, information storage and dissemination, and social control. We can also suggest actions that can be taken, if people decide they want to work to maintain their privacy.
* The fact that we are homeschooling makes us somewhat more vulnerable in situations in which computer systems are being used to record and disseminate information. Although homeschooling is more widely recognized these days than it was two decades ago, mention of it is still more likely to generate a raised eyebrow than a casual "Ho, hum." Despite the growing acceptance of homeschooling as an educational alternative, many people (perhaps especially professional educators) are still quite skeptical of this approach to education. In addition, it is easy to identify and label a homeschooling family, especially since many of us are required to register with the state so that the compulsory school attendance law can be enforced. Therefore, it would not be surprising to find "homeschooling" listed as a category in computer databases and used as a "red flag" to indicate that there is something "unusual" about the family being listed and that perhaps they deserve careful observation by officials.
The preceding paragraph is not intended to imply that in order to protect ourselves, we should try to hide the fact that we are homeschooling or refuse to register with the state. There are clearly enough homeschoolers, and homeschooling is widely enough accepted by the general public, that our greatest security as homeschoolers comes from being recognized as homeschoolers and from gaining increasing respect from the general public as they see from our example how well homeschooling works. It does not seem necessary at this point to have to put up with the limitations and liabilities of underground homeschooling in an attempt to protect our family's privacy. The issues surrounding privacy (and freedom) are much more complex than that and unfortunately could not be resolved by such a relatively simple step.
* Some new "educational technology" which is or will soon be available, and which will undoubtedly be marketed to homeschoolers, could seriously invade family privacy. For example, interactive computers allow students to communicate directly with teachers on a one-to-one basis via computer. Such a system could be used to check up on homeschoolers, to be sure that they were actually studying when they claimed to be. This would threaten the sanctity of our homes by setting a precedent for outsiders, including public or private school personnel, checking up on what we are doing within the privacy of our own homes. Therefore, as homeschoolers we need to give serious consideration to the impacts and side effects of the technology that we choose to use.
What We Can Do
* First of all, we need to keep a sense of perspective. There are times when it is definitely worth the risk to voluntarily provide some information about ourselves. For example, allowing our name and telephone number to be published in a directory of homeschoolers for use by homeschoolers is often a reasonable risk. When we take someone to a hospital emergency room, we need to share basic factual information so treatment can be as effective as possible. (However, we do not need to answer personal but unrelated questions that are now being asked in many emergency rooms.) There may be times when we are dealing with an official when we decide to voluntarily reveal some information in hopes that the issue under discussion can be resolved on the spot rather than escalating. (For example, a teenage homeschooler suspected of truancy while on their way to the public library may decide to voluntarily provide their name, address, telephone number, and the fact that they are homeschooling in accordance with state law.) In short, if our society has gotten to the point where we can't trust each other under reasonable circumstances, there is a real sense in which we have already lost much of what is important, including much of our freedom. At that point, privacy issues are not the most important concerns we face.
Of course, each of us needs to make our own decisions about when to share information. But we will be in a better position to make them if we understand the risks involved.
* We can inform ourselves about privacy issues. Resources listed at the end of this column provide suggestions for ways of pursuing this topic.
* As individual citizens, we can be alert for attempts to gather information about us and our families and refuse to provide such information unless it is clearly required by a law with which we are willing to comply.
Especially risky is providing our social security number (except perhaps in cases when it is clearly required by law). It is understandably tempting to schools, health care facilities, and other organizations to identify people by means of their social security numbers. But the more information that is linked to social security numbers, the more our privacy has been compromised. Under federal law, social security numbers may not be required without explicit legislative action. Therefore, much of the time we can simply decline to provide the number for ourselves or other family members in cases in which legislative action has not been taken. Also, not including social security numbers on personal checks and in other such places helps protect privacy.
We can refuse to give our telephone number to anyone who does not need to call us. Keeping our telephone number private may not be easy, however, since any time we use an 800 number, the person or organization we call will receive our telephone number as part of their telephone bill.
Some people make it a general rule not to give information about themselves or their families to anyone in an official position, be it a store clerk or a nurse in a hospital emergency room, unless there is clear and compelling reason to do so. Many people feel it is good practice and a good model not to provide social security numbers, telephone numbers, and zip codes when it seems unnecessary and could lead to unwanted sharing of information about us and our family. The more we offer vital information about ourselves, the more likely this information will be shared with others.
Writing such statements makes us (the authors) very sad. Any human society worth its salt is based on trust and interpersonal relationships. But unfortunately we also feel that our society has reached a point where it is prudent for people to take action to protect their privacy, especially when information may be used against them as a means of social and economic discrimination and social control. It is risky to trust officials since they are part of such a large and complex system. It is also important to realize that the basic problems concerning privacy are not centered in the individual officials who collect data. The problems are rooted in fundamental assumptions and beliefs being promoted by those who control the power structure in our society. So although we the authors are suggesting that people could refuse to answer questions being asked by various officials, we are not suggesting that these officials are to blame for the invasions of our privacy.
Such a state of affairs is a strong argument for as much independence from databases as possible. Fortunately as homeschoolers we have experience in taking responsibility for a major area of our lives, the education of our children. Our experience with homeschooling helps prepare us to choose, if we want to, to take charge of our lives in other areas as well.
* We can also be careful that we don't feed any more information into the system than is absolutely necessary. For example:
- We can decide not to take our children to preschool screening. Such screenings are almost always voluntary rather than mandatory, although officials responsible for screening may not inform parents of this fact. If we do participate in such voluntary screenings, a file will be set up on our child and our family that includes information which is often misleading and inaccurate.
- Many homeschoolers choose not to have their children tested, preferring to evaluate their learning by other means such as direct observation. However, if we feel it is essential that our children be tested, we can have them tested by a private evaluator rather than through the public schools or some other public agency. If we choose this option, we have to find an evaluator who keeps test results confidential; some private evaluators release them to public agencies.
- We can remember that any time we contact social services, the contact will be recorded. Therefore, we need to weigh the benefits we expect to receive from social services against the risks to our family's privacy that will arise from the resulting records.
- When making a telephone call, we can cancel Caller ID. The telephone company will explain how this can be done. (In some areas, dial * [star] 67 on a touch tone telephone and 1167 on a rotary telephone.)
- We can refuse to supply our telephone numbers to businesses.
- We can request that our health care providers keep our records confidential and not release them to insurance companies, public agencies, etc. without our permission.
- We can request that our name not be added to direct marketing lists whenever this is an option and that it be removed from such lists when it is on one.
* We can inform others about our concerns, bringing up privacy issues in conversations at work or social gatherings, etc.
* We can work for legislation to prohibit some abuses of privacy and to provide safeguards that enable people to take action to protect their privacy.
Privacy issues that are facing Americans today have special meaning for homeschoolers. By choosing an alternative approach to education, we have special perspective on our society and may be able to see potential problems with technology, databases, and collaboration more easily than some other people. We are also in a potentially vulnerable position because our homeschooling attracts attention and sometimes arouses suspicions of those consulting databases. Also, some educational technology has the potential to seriously invade privacy. Therefore, it is important for us as homeschoolers to be aware of ways in which privacy issues impact on us, to know what our rights are and what choices we have, and to be prepared to take action to protect our privacy when we decide that such steps are important.
Suggested Resources for more information on privacy:
Branscomb, Anne Wells. Who Owns Information? From Privacy to Public Access. NY: Basic Books, 1994.
Rothfeder, Jeffrey. Privacy for Sale: How Computerization Has Made Everyone's Private Life an Open Secret. NY: Simon & Schuster, 1992.
Privacy Journal: An Independent Monthly on Privacy in a Computer Age, P. O. Box 28577, Providence, RI 02908, 1-401-274-7861.
© 1995 Larry and Susan Kaseman
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