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Students take part in seminar on privacy at Nashua North

Union Leader Correspondent

November 28. 2013 7:15PM

With drones cruising the sky, surveillance cameras recording the landscape and government agencies gobbling up every fleck of data hurtling through the atmosphere, many worry the right to privacy is quickly losing ground to other interests and needs.

But the next generation of leaders, lawyers and policy makers who will continue to define and safeguard privacy rights is already on the case.

Students from Bedford, Milford and Exeter this month joined a group of students at Nashua High North for “When Privacy meets the First Amendment: Social Media, the Constitution and You” a seminar on privacy rights, risks and protections. The event was sponsored by Constitutionally Speaking, a community outreach program launched by the University of New Hampshire Law School, the state Supreme Court and the NH Humanities Council to get people of all ages thinking and talking about constitutional issues, and to support civics education in local schools.

“I think it was an eye-opener for a lot of kids,” said social studies teacher David Alcox who brought a group of students from Milford. “They were asked to look at how private their lives are on the Internet. Constitutionally Speaking pushes really hard to get kids involved in things they will be interested in.”

Privacy rights are rooted in the Fourth Amendment which guarantees people the right to be secure in their person, houses, papers and effects by protecting them against unreasonable searches and seizures. And it’s complicated.

Privacy rights involve interpretations, expectations and a balancing act with the First Amendment’s guarantee of free speech and a free press. Technology keeps changing how privacy is defined and national security keeps trumping individual rights.

Jessica Sibley, a professor at Suffolk School of Law in Boston, said she learned a lot talking with students during the Constitutionally Speaking seminar that ultimately generated more questions than answers.

“We asked their opinions about certain situations where their privacy would be at risk,” she said, adding she was happy to see students were smart about privacy. “They were thinking like adults about how to solve problems.”

But they weren’t thinking exactly like adults who worry about businesses that cull information from social media sites and search engine histories to market products. Students don’t share those concerns.

“They don’t care that Target has their data,” said Sibley.

She said that teens see coupons that show up unexpectedly in their email as a benefit. “But they don’t necessarily like the idea of Target selling their information to credit agencies or other businesses.”

Bosch said that while students didn’t mind companies targeting them for advertising, they were bothered when personal information and photos were used as product endorsements, a practice Facebook is expanding.

Many students take steps to protect their privacy. According to the latest survey from the Pew Internet and American Life project, about 60 percent of teen Facebook users limit who can access their pages.

“There are privacy settings and I use those,” said Luke Guertler, a Nashua high school student who wasn’t at the seminar but has come to the same conclusion about social media as those who did attend.

“When a student, or anyone, is on Facebook, or any social media site, they are there at their own risk,” he said. “Privacy is mostly about user responsibility.”

Katie Husang, a senior at Bedford High, said privacy, social media and responsible use are part of a perpetual conversation at her school. “It comes up in our classes a lot so it’s something kids are aware of,” she said. “When you use those sites, you have to be aware of how what you say could affect you.”

Like Guertler, Husang relies on privacy settings and she agrees it’s up to users to protect themselves and their information.

Facebook membership has been slipping and some tech experts have said the site’s casual attitude toward privacy is partly to blame. Students have other reasons for logging off for good.

“I don’t use Facebook, it’s an old people’s site,” said Alex who asked that her last name not be published to protect her privacy. Alex is one of a large wave of older teens who have moved on to Twitter, and other fast-paced sites like Snapchat and Instagram. For Alex, the concern over privacy has cooled down social media.

“It has definitely compromised how you express yourself,” she said.

Sibley also senses the chill, and attributed it partly to privacy breaches that have given new life to old posts and photos that students now realize are trailing them as they grow older.

“There’s a sense that we should be able to change and forget, but these things live on and on,” she said.

Students also worry about government data mining and surveillance but Sibley said they don’t feel they can do anything about it, particularly at this stage in their lives.

Alcox said he hears the same concerns in his classes in Milford.

“Students react, not so much with anger, they just shake their heads and say, ’Really,’” he said.

But, Alcox said high school seniors today were four or five years old on 9/11. They grew up with Homeland Security and a gradual erosion of privacy rights as the new normal.

“There’s not a full understanding of how much control they really have,” said Sibley.

But that’s the point of the Constitutionally Speaking series, “We the People,” and other programs that are ramping up civics education.

“These are wonderful opportunities for kids to learn about different facets of government, and arguing about constitutional issues is getting kids active and engaged,” said Alcox.

And in New Hampshire where politics never sleeps, understanding government and individual rights is empowering.

“Once they are out of school, students realize how important it was to get informed,” said Alcox. “Not everyone goes into government or politics, but everyone is a citizen.”

Alcox has made Milford High a perennial winner in the “We the People” competitions where students participate in mock congressional hearings in front of a panel of legal experts and elected officials.

Nashua High North social studies teacher Timothy Bosch, who organized the event, said the day began with guest panelists, Sibley and Omer Tene, who teachers at the College of Management School of Law Rishn Le Zion, Israel, working through different concepts of privacy with students.

“For the second part of the day, students were in small discussion groups led by 20 kids who were trained as facilitators,” said Bosch. “Those talks focused on how you solve problems locally, regionally, nationally and internationally.”

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