A brilliant, simple exercise to teach privacy fundamentals

Kate Klonick, an assistant professor at St John's Law School, teaches an Information Privacy course for second- and third-year law students; she devised a wonderful and simply exercise to teach her students about "anonymous speech, reasonable expectation of privacy, third party doctrine, and privacy by obscurity" over the spring break.

Klonick's students were assigned to sit in a public place and eavesdrop on nearby conversations, then, using only Google searches, "see if you can de-anonymize someone based on things they say loudly enough for lots of others to hear and/or things that are displayed on their clothing or bags."

According to Klonick, the exercise helped students understand "whether or not public places are private and whether we expect them to be," and it produced sterling results, with students writing excitedly over the break to report on their successes: identifying a fellow air-traveler in three minutes, or capturing someone's full credit card number as they read it over the phone.

The outcome was something of a privacy-consciousness miracle: "a number who had clung to the idea of 'I don't care if anyone's watching, I have nothing to hide' were shocked into seeing the privacy issues. Including a future district attorney."

I'm pretty thrilled with this, as a teaching tool, but also as a really interesting lesson in how to check our own expectations about being private in public and how clearly we're not. And it's a reminder that norms, not laws, govern a lot of our day to day personal privacy.