The Problem with Education as a Solution for Digital Privacy and Security
A post I wrote recently, in which I summarised why my friend left Tutanota, received a number of reactions from people I respect, including Seth for Privacy and Nathan from The New Oil.
Nathan wrote a two-part blog response to my friend's reasons for quitting Tutanota. In the first part, he outlines points in defence of the developers creating our privacy tools, and in part two, he takes the other position and examines what developers can do better in order to retain users.
All of this motivates me to continue exploring steelmanned arguments against my personal beliefs about privacy and privacy tools, or to "play devil's advocate" to see what new perspectives doing so might reveal.
Today, I want to examine the argument that education could go a long way to addressing the divide regular users and privacy advocates and communities.
Can education bridge the gap?
I recently wrote an argument for teaching digital technology as a core subject in schools. Nathan, in part one of his recent discussion of this topic, also argues there is a need for a basic level of IT education in order to battle what he calls 'learned helplessness.'
Nobody’s used to the settings anymore. It’s become scary “technical jargon,” but in reality it’s simply uncharted space – more akin to a forgotten city than a haunted labyrinth. This is another hurdle we’ll need to overcome in our quest to fix the problems with our current surveillance state. As I’ve said many times before, not everyone needs to become an expert sysadmin or network architect, but we’re going to have to start accepting that we’ll need to learn how to navigate simple things like account settings, picking an “instance” on a federated service, how to properly set up a home router, and how to do basic troubleshooting on an error (such as “googling” the error code), among other simple tasks.
While I agree, I don't know if that's ever going to happen. I do know for sure that IT education is not systematically taught in schools today, certainly not in the way reading and writing are.
In a discussion about this topic on Mastodon, one person responded with:
If privacy or security depends on people learning stuff we've failed.
This is controversial, and food for thought.
Examining different knowledge scenarios
I want to explore several scenarios where education could also be considered essential. As we'll see, we do not prioritise improving knowledge in many fields that affect us deeply. Our engagements in these areas currently happen without much knowledge on our part at all.
An interest in creating, editing, mixing and producing sound and music have led me to study how sound works and how it can be manipulated.
Most of us are constantly subjected to sound. Key information for language intelligibility resides in the middle and high frequencies of sound,1 a feature of the human voice rarely taken full advantage of on PA and intercom systems. Hard, reflective surfaces will muddle and sound projected into the room, and it's strange to see an acceptance of that type of sonic mess all the time.
Humans who can hear cannot easily get away from sound. While we don't have 'ear lids' and have to use our hands, or technology, to cover our ears. Harmonious and dissonant sounds can excite us, move us, but also cause stress and even harm us.
The amplitude and pitch of our voices have a huge impact on whether on not we are liked and listened to, and believed. Music, the harmonious use of sound, is one of the few (only?) things that can cut straight to our cores, soothe us, even heal us, without any requirement for logic or understanding or therapy. Control over sound, like language, is one of our truly magical powers.
There's a strong case for educating all humans about the technical aspects of sound and harmony, for better communication, emotion management, focus and protection against stress and physical harm.
Why is teaching about sound and harmony not a priority in our society?
The human body and the natural world
We have bodies that we can take care of, even improve, but also harm and weaken. The human body can succumb to illness and it can die. That seems high stakes and worth being educated about in a serious way.
While I remember taking biology as a subject in high school and learning about the systems inside of us, it is safe to say schools currently do not prioritise the study of biology and health.
If aliens with advanced intelligence landed, it would be quite awkward to explain to them why we failed to make education about our bodies, the other animals we share the planet with, and the natural systems around us our number one priority, given we have do have decent systems for mass education in place.
Why don't we prioritise the teaching of anatomy, health & disease, sex, nourishment and the study of nature and animals over mathematics and languages? Which is more essential?
Over the past couple of years, I have tried to learn more about money. Learning how to using Monero, a privacy-focused crypto currency, has sparked an interest in economics.
Now that I am learning a few things, it surprises me I was never made the study of economics in school. Money and the transaction of value are everywhere and impact us very directly every day.
On a very practical level, I learned to budget the hard way. Strange that such a key skill to the attainment of happiness and good mental health was not taught in school.
Why don't we prioritise teaching young people about the management of money, and how the exchange of money world-wide affects us?
In every school I have worked, economics was not a core subject.
The use of complex machines, like cars
In most places, you are not allowed to drive without a license. Driving is an example of a ubiquitous field of knowledge and activity where the priority for education is so high, it is built into our legal system.
I am guessing this is due to the element of immediate physical danger if someone drives recklessly or doesn't know the rules. No matter your starting ability or natural level of interest in traffic systems, if you don't educate and certify yourself, you are simply not allowed to use the machines in traffic.
From this I can infer that, at least in the societies I have lived in, learning about traffic rules and handling a car is considered more important than learning about your own body, at least for those who choose to drive.
Reading & writing
Teaching reading and writing is a priority in our education systems. Not learning these skills will most likely not cause direct physical danger or harm (though I can imagine scenarios...) but as a society we value written language to such a high degree that all children will learn to develop their skills in reading and writing from kindergarten to graduation.
The teaching of language from K-12 is an example of a societal value put into practice through education. Why are the majority those kids left in the dark about how money works? Would a money-savvy society not happier than a well-read one? Couldn't we balance these two areas?
Learning reading and writing comes closest to the type of systematic IT education Nathan (I think) and I propose. The argument is that, in today's world, basic knowledge of technical networks and tools, security and privacy has become essential.
While I strongly believe this, I don't see a push towards learning IT skills in schools. Digital knowledge could go the way of sound, anatomy and money - systems that affect us daily and deeply, without most of us understanding of how they work or could be improved.
If this is the case, one way to ensure privacy and security for all is to create tools and systems that have privacy built-in without disruption to the user. These tools would need to be the most attractive option. Another possible route is via legal means, as is the case with driving cars, but governments seem a bit on the fence about privacy for citizens at the moment.
Beside education or implementing laws, societies could also move in a healthier direction through lobbying. In a recent Firewalls Don't Stop Dragons podcast interview with Andy Yen, CEO of Proton, I was surprised to learn that Proton spends a lot of their human resources and money on lobbying for privacy with governments and businesses behind the scenes. I highly recommend listening to that interview to hear the Yen's reasoning for spending resources in this way.
Final thoughts on playing devil's advocate to my own beliefs
I have enjoyed playing devil's advocate to the argument that education can solve the current issues around privacy and security, especially as I've spent most of my life in teaching. It seems there are many fields that impact us crucially, while most of us don't really know how they work, or how we can protect ourselves.
Time will tell which areas end up being valued. IT skills and knowledge are important, but it is clear today that we can get by with little knowledge.
What kind of privacy or security crisis might make us change our minds?
The New Oil "Making Privacy Tools Worth It Part 1
The New Oil "Making Privacy Tools Worth It Part 2
The New Oil "The Rising Standard of Tech Literacy
An Argument for Using Schools in the Fight for Digital Privacy
Firewalls Don't Stop Dragons, episode "What's Your Threat Model?"
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a good article on the subject of intelligibility of the human voice can be found here↩