Parents, kids, teachers, this one’s for you! Explaining privacy in a way that kids can understand — concepts and tools you can use to start discussing this very important topic from a young age. Conversation with international privacy expert Daniel Solove with highlights from his children’s book The Eyemonger.
Hello. I’m Patricia Kosseim, Ontario’s Information and Privacy Commissioner, and you’re listening to Info Matters, a podcast about people, privacy, and access to information. We dive into conversations with people from all walks of life and hear real stories about the access and privacy issues that matter most to them.
Welcome listeners and thanks for joining us. With all the podcasts available these days, I’m so honored you’ve chosen to tune in to Info Matters. We try to make every episode relevant for different pockets of Ontario’s population. So parents, kids, and teachers, this one’s for you. The increasing use of digital tools allows us to learn, share, and socialize online. These tools bring many benefits and conveniences, but they can also bring significant risks to our privacy.
Our personal information has become a valuable resource. For governments working to keep us and our family safe, planning and evaluating health and education programs, or monitoring our use of social subsidies. For businesses looking to monetize our data and wanting to tailor their online ads aimed at us and our kids to sell us stuff and more stuff. Not to mention cyber criminals who engage in tracking, hacking, identity theft, or other scams to steal our money, and cyber bullies and other creepy strangers online who prey on our children and set out to inflict real physical, mental, and emotional harms on our loved ones.
These threats can be frightening for many parents, let alone children and teens. Now more than ever, it’s important for children, youth, and their parents to be aware of the hazards lurking out there, so we can all make smart decisions and protect ourselves. I know this is something I worried a lot about when I was raising my two children. And I could just imagine all the young parents in my neighborhood going through the same thing today. Knowing how to protect personal data and use technology safely, securely, and appropriately matters. It really matters.
My guest for today’s episode is Daniel Solove. He’s a professor of law at the George Washington University Law School in Washington, D.C. He’s also the President and CEO of TeachPrivacy, a company that provides computer-based privacy and security training to schools, companies, hospitals, and other organizations around the world. For those of you who don’t know this, Daniel Solove is one of the foremost academic thinkers about privacy who’s written some of the most highly sophisticated scholarly textbooks on the topic. He’s a highly recognized name and very well-respected privacy and security expert in the US, Canada, and internationally.
Recently, Daniel did something quite unique and fascinating. He went off the beaten track by publishing a children’s privacy book called The Eyemonger. The main antagonist in the story is a curious dinosaurish, lizardy, crocodile-like creature with a 103 eyes called the Eyemonger, who promises to protect citizens of a faraway island at sea by providing them with greater security. The protagonist is a brave young boy called Griffin, who stands up to the Eyemonger when he goes too far in his surveillance tactics and begins to seriously infringe on the privacy rights and freedoms of the townspeople. It’s a classic adventure tale with an important message, and it’s beautifully illustrated too. Daniel, welcome to the show and thanks for taking time out of your busy schedule to join us for this episode.
Thanks so much for having me. I’m delighted to be here.
So, let me just begin by asking you to describe your expertise and your background in the field of privacy and security. Many of our listeners will know you and have of course come to read of your books, but many listeners may not. And I’d like them to get a bit of a sense of just how immersed you are in this area.
I became interested in the topic in law school in the mid ’90s and have been researching and writing about privacy ever since. At the time I became interested in the issue, the internet was just starting to take off and I thought that there were some really fascinating issues with regard to the internet especially around privacy. And at the time, there wasn’t a lot of material on privacy. A little bit of scholarship, but not much. There were occasional article about privacy in the news. Whenever I encountered one, I quickly clip it and be so excited. The field really has grown. And what was once just something I thought a side topic of interests became my primary focus. And I’ve written on privacy, taught privacy ever since.
So, it’s really been interesting. The issue has caught the attention of policy makers. We’re seeing a lot of new laws on privacy. And also, a lot of interesting problems with privacy these days as we see platforms that are allowing for a lot of entities to collect personal information about people. All sorts of devices that are gathering information about people, and how they surf the internet, everything they do in their home if they have a home assistant device. Everything these days is connected online and that allows for the capture of personal data.
And now, there are very sophisticated algorithms that are being used to figure out more information about people based on the information that is already there. And then to make decisions about people, decisions that affect people’s lives in some unexpected ways and some rather profound and very impactful ways that can really be pretty serious. And a lot of this is very under-regulated. So I think it’s a very interesting, important issue. And I am constantly challenged by it and constantly having to think of new things to keep up.
So I’ve been practicing in this area for many years as well, and I’ve certainly, like many others, I have benefited from your scholarship and your contributions to this field, so thank you. So tell me, how is it that an internationally renowned expert like you with such deep, sophisticated knowledge and experience on issues of privacy and security decided to write a children’s book about privacy?
A couple of things inspired this. One was the fact that there really weren’t books about this issue for children. I couldn’t find any of the stories that I read to my young son, who is Griffin. My son is the character in the book, Griffin. I couldn’t find anything on this topic. I read I don’t know how many children’s books to him, but never was there a book on this. And I thought that for an issue that is so important, so relevant to our times, that there would be no book to introduce children to what privacy is, why privacy matters and is important. I thought something needed to exist here. And so, that’s part of what inspired it.
The other part is that my son and I have a tradition of storytelling where at bedtime at night he would tell stories to me, I would tell stories to him. And this is born out of that tradition of telling each other stories because that’s how I would often try to teach a lesson to him and teach things to him is putting it in a story that would have a message and teach a larger thing. So I thought that this could be a something that could benefit everybody and would hopefully be a helpful tool to bring this issue to the attention of a new generation. And so, I wanted to think of a story that would bring this to life that could resonate with children so that they would understand why privacy was important. Because I think that one of the things that is important for privacy is that we’re not going to get privacy protection if people don’t want privacy protection.
If people don’t understand why privacy is important and the value of privacy and the role that it plays in their lives and the important role it plays in society, the value will diminish. And there are plenty of forces out there from the government to companies that will be very happy to take privacy away and diminish privacy. It’s something that we have to fight for, but people aren’t going to fight for privacy unless they understand why it is important and why they should care about privacy.
And so, that’s ultimately what I hope the book does at a young age is teach children who are going to grow up in a world where a lot of their information is going to be gobbled up by many different organizations, where protecting their privacy is going to be very hard with all sorts of tempting technologies out there that will present great benefits, but come at a cost to privacy. I think they need to understand this value. And so, that’s what made me want to do this.
So amazing. Can you describe The Eyemonger for our listeners? Tell us who is this curious creature you created. Is he good? Is he bad? Who ultimately does he represent, government, big business?
He’s based on an ancient Greek mythological creature called Argus who had many, many eyes. And ultimately, the goal was to try to create the creature that kind of existed betwixt and between. Primarily, he represents the government because he’s elected to lead, but I didn’t want to make it too tethered to government because government is just one entity that could invade privacy. But there are many very powerful companies doing the same thing and with the same effect of their surveillance. So, I didn’t want him to be too much into government, but ultimately in the book, he’s more on the government side of things because he is elected to lead. The other thing that I wanted to balance is whether he’s good or bad. I didn’t want to make him an evil villain because I think that a lot of the surveillance that happens is not done by evildoers for bad aims. A lot of it is well-meaning. And the government engages in surveillance to protects people. It’s about safety.
But the point that I wanted to show is that there can be too much of a good thing that people who have good aims could be overzealous and that there’s a cost to surveillance that we need to balance against the benefits that surveillance might bring. So, I didn’t want to make it too simplistic because it’s complicated. It’s not black and white. There’s a lot of gray in privacy. There’s good and bad and I wanted to capture that. And so, the Eyemonger is not a bad person, just an overzealous person who starts out with a set of very fervent beliefs about the importance of surveillance and law and order. But ultimately in the book comes to realize that zealousness was a little too extreme and needs to dial it back significantly because he realizes the value on the other side. So ultimately, that was the goal in creating this character was try to show that you can be good but do bad things, but ultimately too, you can have redemption as well.
And, of course, even those 103 eyes are not enough for the Eyemonger. So he decides to set off thousands of eyeballs with bat-like wings, so he can better look into every crevice, corner, knot-hole, and nook. So, I must say this tall, thin, blue gray, bizarre looking monster and his flying bat-like eyeballs are quite creepy looking. And, in fact, even the town citizens get creeped out at one point, filled as you say, with uneasiness and dread. So how did you walk the fine line between wanting to transmit the sense of creepiness, which comes with surveillance, particularly overzealous surveillance, but without scaring children, young readers? How did you manage that fine line?
Yeah. It was trying to walk a line because I did want to capture that surveillance is uncomfortable, it is creepy. That’s one of the things that makes it problematic, it does make people uneasy. On the other hand, I didn’t want to make it too scary. I didn’t want to frighten children. The Eyemonger is designed to be a creature with some familiarity. I mean, designed to kind of look like a mixture of a dinosaur and there some horse-like features and some reptilian features. Everybody in the town isn’t afraid of the Eyemonger, so the Eyemonger doesn’t go and start attacking people or doing anything like that.
So I tried to make him look like something weird, but also have some familiar parts to him from other creatures, creatures that kids… Kids like dinosaurs, they like reptiles, and they’re comfortable with things like that. They like bats even though bats are creepy. There’s also a… Kids are comfortable with things like that. And the tone of the book isn’t one that… I think it’s also setting the right tone. I didn’t really want to set a tone of scares and horror. It’s a morality tale. I think just in the context, really designed to kind of capture that. This guy is a little extreme, definitely not the norm, and pushing things that are uncomfortable but not frightening. And hopefully, it hits that fine line that I was aiming for.
Of course, as the plot moves along, the Eyemonger starts to go overboard in his efforts, well-intentioned as they are to protect the townspeople, as you say. He’s perched up on a tower in the center of town with his huge telescope that can literally see down every street, and his flying eyeballs that can look into homes and buildings and report back to him the activities of the town citizens. In fact, there’s a line in the book where you say, “Some citizens fretted about the Eyemonger’s power saying, ‘We have no privacy when you watch from your tower.’” So when the townspeople start to fight back, the Eyemonger refuses to back down, which kind of raises the fundamental issue of consent, doesn’t it?
Yeah. Initially, the Eyemonger comes to town and asks the town to elect him, to basically tells the town, this is what I want to do. I’m going to bring greater order. I’m going to bring all these great things like more safety and security to the town. The town decides we like this. In fact, they make him their leader to do this. They build the tower for him. And I think the town thinks, at least initially, this is going to be great. What they don’t realize is what they’ve traded off. And as they learn, hey, maybe we didn’t make the best choice here. This isn’t working out quite as well as we’d like, and they express dislike. The Eyemonger becomes more zealous. The Eyemonger really believes it and is not stopping at that point. And it really takes something that, his encounter with Griffin, to change the Eyemonger’s mind, to make the Eyemonger realize that he had gone too far.
At one point in his insistence to continue, the Eyemonger replies with a very famous catchphrase that anyone working in this field will recognize and that we’ve heard all too often, the sentiment that if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear, which as we know, completely undermines and mischaracterizes the fundamental value of our privacy. In fact, the hero of the story, Griffin, which I understand is a depiction of your young son, turns the argument on its head in a way when he tells the Eyemonger precisely it’s because he has nothing and he’s done nothing wrong that there’s no reason to treat him as suspicious or blameworthy. I was wondering if you can comment on that interesting twist between the Eyemonger’s assumption or premise and what Griffin comes back to ultimately say, or counter-argue the exact opposite.
The “nothing to hide” argument is an argument that was often made about privacy especially after the 9/11 attacks in 2001. And this argument got trotted out all the time, constantly that, hey, we need more surveillance. We need to catch the bad guys. And that really if you are a law-abiding citizen, you have nothing to hide. If you have nothing to hide, you should have nothing to fear from surveillance. Surveillance is only bad for people who are doing bad things. I wrote an article that was about this argument. Several years after 9/11, after hearing the argument, I thought there needs to be a response to this because it was a very popular argument. I’d see it all the time in the news and everyone was making it, from politicians to commentators to everybody. So, I wrote a piece that tried to argue that this argument is flawed in a lot of ways. And ultimately, that article became a book called Nothing to Hide.
And ultimately, the argument has a major faulty assumption, and that is that privacy is about hiding bad things, and that the only reason why people would want privacy is to hide things that are bad or embarrassing. And the problem with this is that’s not why a lot of people want privacy. A lot of people want privacy, because it gives them a peace of mind, because being watched makes them uncomfortable. Because it’s very hard to be creative if you’re being watched all the time, or if you’re trying to do something or write something and if you know that people are looking at that or looking out of context, they don’t know what you’re doing. They might get the wrong impression that you are doing something wrong or that you have to explain yourself.
And one of the great things about living in a free society is that we can act and we don’t have to explain everything that we do. We don’t have to get permission of the government to do things. And it’s only when we do wrong and start harming other people and threatening other people, then we have to account for what we’re doing. But, otherwise, we’re free to do what we want, free to create, free to explore, free to read things, free to say things. And we don’t have to just sit by ourselves in order to do that. And that’s I think a very important value that privacy is protected.
And of course in your book, you make this argument in such a understandable, accessible way through storytelling, as you said. So in the story, Griffin locks his door, he boards up his windows, he refuses to let the eyeballs in, the flying eyeballs, and the eye monster gets mad. And eventually, lets loose an army of rhinos – a scary big army of rhinos – to break down the house only to find inside the boy’s most splendid artwork completely destroyed. And in a powerful turn of events, it actually brings the eye monster to tears when he realizes that there was actually nothing bad inside, only the most beautiful things he had ever seen, and now completely destroyed by his actions. So therein lies the moral of the story, the incident, the hard lesson learned that surveillance that deprives us of our privacy also deprives us of our ability to think and act creatively and ultimately our freedom to develop as persons and to be our true selves.
And you say it so lovely in such a lovely way in a line that I captured here, which is essentially reads as follows, “Privacy is essential to be free and at ease. We all need some time when nobody sees.” And I think that’s a very powerful message not only for government, for businesses, but for parents too, who sometimes in their over-protective way forget that fundamental space that kids need sometimes to spend time alone when nobody sees. And while the Eyemonger had set out with good intentions to keep people safe, he in fact made the citizens upset and afraid. And through your beautiful illustrations, or in fact your collaborator, Ryan Beckwith – congratulations to him on these amazing illustrations – We see the Eyemonger packing away his telescopes, putting them back in their cases, covering up the eyeballs, and promising to look he says, “only when you want me to see.” Very nice, Daniel. Congratulations on your book. So tell me, what are you hoping to do with this book? Who’s your ultimate audience? And, where are you hoping to see this book ultimately distributed?
Well, I’d love to see it used in schools. I think it hopefully will be a good spark for some conversations that can be had on these issues. The book is really a starting point for a conversation about privacy that I hope that will be had in schools. I think that far too often what I see in K-12 schools is not a sufficient education about some of the issues that we are facing today with technology, with the internet, and the related values of it. Now, the book is about the value of privacy. So, it’s not really about technology or the internet. It’s technology neutral. It’s really just about this value. But it’s very relevant to the world that our children are growing up in. And I think that they are not learning about these values. And in a lot of schools, there’s nothing in the curriculum that teaches kids about these issues. So, I thought that it’d be great to see this book used in schools.
I created a free handout on my website that has some discussion questions and things to kind of push off from the book that will help spark some of those conversations that children and teachers should have in a classroom. And then, I also hope that it’s a book that parents will use to read to their children that will get their children thinking about this at a young age, so that as they get older and as they start to do more in a world that is constantly surveilling people and constantly gathering information, that they’re aware of the value of privacy and all that. And that they don’t get too comfortable with this world. Because that’s the risk is that if you grow up and you’re very comfortable with all the information gathering, with all the watching, then you don’t realize what is being lost in that process. So, the book hopefully at an early age will teach children that.
I certainly immensely enjoyed reading the book. And this is one that I would have loved to have when my kids were young and I would have certainly added this to the reading list for story time at bedtime. Let’s just step away from the book for a moment and talk about more general takeaways for parents and teachers of young children. So as an expert in this field, but also as a father of a young 10-year-old, how do you recommend parents and teachers talk to their kids about privacy?
Well, I think it’s something that kids can understand at a pretty early age. Griffin certainly kind of understood some of the basics of the concept even when he was around four. I would ask him, what’s privacy? And he’s like, well, when you’re in the bathroom and no one else is in there. So, I think children can start to understand privacy at an early age. And then, it obviously becomes richer and deeper and more nuanced as they get older. And I think that sort of there’s a lot of important things about growing up in today’s world that is important for children to learn, for parents to teach. Not just the value of privacy, that’s really a starting point, but there are also issues about online safety that what they see online, people they see, people they write to, people they might play games with are not necessarily who they seem to be. That there are a lot of dangers out there, dangers to security, dangers to safety. That the information that they broadcast to the world could be … put them in danger and they need to know that.
They need to also learn about how to respect the privacy of other people. Taking a picture of somebody when they don’t want their picture taken, that that’s a wrong thing to do. Posting information online can be very dangerous, whether it’s about yourself or about other people. It’s very easy for children to snap a photo and post it somewhere, and that could be a big problem. Just understanding also what you might say about other people to others. Spreading gossip both offline and online can be troubling and could cause people harm. And there are a lot more issues.
But all of these things that people need to learn about and think about because the technologies are designed to make it very easy for people to share information, to capture information, to spread information. Children need to know how to be careful and resist that pull on the other side because it’s not neutral. The technology is teaching children something that’s not neutral. It’s making them more likely to do these things and then hiding the implication. So, part of it is to try to make it look easier and make people not think about the bad consequences of doing certain things. So, I think that needs to be countered in a way through education. I think that’s really important.
Thanks again for being with us today, Daniel. You’ve provided some valuable advice to parents and teachers when it comes to talking to children about privacy and security, and teaching them some really important life lessons in a very creative and accessible way. Listeners, you can find out more about The Eyemonger in the show notes for this episode. You’ll also find in the show notes and on our website many helpful educational resources for parents and teachers, including guidance for digital literacy and lesson plans for schools. For those of you who want to learn more about privacy and protecting personal information, you can visit our website at ipc.on.ca. You can also contact our office for assistance and general information about Ontario’s access and privacy laws.
Well, this brings us to the end of our episode. Parents, kids, teachers, I hope you found it helpful. Until next time.
I’m Patricia Kosseim, Ontario’s Information and Privacy Commissioner, and this has been Info Matters. If you enjoyed the podcast, leave us a rating or review. If there’s an access or privacy topic you’d like us to explore on a future episode, we’d love to hear from you. Send us a tweet @IPCinfoprivacy or email us at [email protected] Thanks for listening and please join us again for more conversations about people, privacy, and access to information. If it matters to you, it matters to me.
Daniel Solove is the John Marshall Harlan Research Professor of Law at the George Washington University Law School and one of the world’s leading experts on privacy law. He is also the president and CEO of TeachPrivacy, a company that provides computer-based privacy and security training to schools, companies, hospitals, and other organizations around the world. He is the author of The Eyemonger, a children’s book about the importance of privacy.
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Info Matters is a podcast about people, privacy, and access to information hosted by Patricia Kosseim, Information and Privacy Commissioner of Ontario. We dive into conversations with people from all walks of life and hear stories about the access and privacy issues that matter most to them.
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