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Audience at NIU searches for Web answers

Published: Friday, Feb. 10, 2012 5:30 a.m.CDT
(Nicole Weskerna –
Science fiction author Cory Doctorow (far left) joins a panel of Northern Illinois University experts Thursday to talk with area high school students about Internet privacy and ethical issues related to technology. The discussion was spurred by his book, “Little Brother.”

DeKALB – With technology permeating people’s lives, an author and panel of Northern Illinois University experts Thursday discussed Internet freedom and piracy issues.

After reading Cory Doctorow’s book, “Little Brother,” area high school students asked Doctorow and other experts questions at a panel discussion held at NIU.

“There are so many great issues [in the book] – freedom of information on the Internet, privacy, how parents feel, how youth feel, what you should and shouldn’t protect,” said NIU Outreach Coordinator Gillian King-Cargile, who helped coordinate Thursday’s discussion called “A Day of Doctorow.”

Doctorow told students from six area high schools that he was inspired to write “Little Brother” after learning about an Internet privacy lawsuit in Pennsylvania. He said a school district had activated remote cameras and tracking devices on school-issued computers and had taken thousands of photos of students in their homes without their knowledge. He said in that case, the technology had ultimately overridden users.

“When users can’t inspect their processors, we go from a world in which technology expands our horizons to one in which technology very drastically narrows our horizons,” he said.

Before taking questions, Doctorow spoke about how difficult it is to legislate Internet privacy concerns, pointing to the Stop Online Piracy Act as an example. The proposed legislation, he explained, cast a wide net to stop people from posting links to websites that infringed copyright laws. The law could be applied to Facebook users and comment sections, he said, and called it “profoundly anti-free speech.”

Doctorow answered a question about how he felt about social networks.

“I would say that some social networks are ones that I worry about a lot,” he said.

Social networks such as Facebook actually train users to reveal information about themselves, which in turn feeds information to their advertisers, Doctorow said.

“They want people to do it because they can sell more stuff if they know more about you,” he said. “You’ve got to treat your personal information like it’s very valuable. We’ve got to teach kids to know how their information leaks out of their browsers.”

Later in the discussion, a panel of experts from NIU joined Doctorow to answer questions from students.

The panel consisted of moderator Lynne Thomas, NIU Libraries curator; associate professor David Gunkel, who teaches about technology, ethics and hacking; professor Sharon Smaldino from the Department of Educational Technology, Research and Assessment; sociology instructor Jack King; and Marc Falkoff, assistant professor specializing in criminal law.

When Thomas asked what people need to know to protect themselves from others violating their online privacy, Gunkel suggested finding alternatives to software that tracks online movement, such as Linux.

In a related question, Gunkel said rather than prohibiting people from using Internet technology, society should be more responsible about educating people on the way information is shared on the Internet, and how to properly manage their privacy.

“We’ve done our students a disservice,” he said. “We need to empower students to take control of our technology.”

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