This lesson focuses on the economic and consumer concerns around apps and websites that collect and track data about you in exchange for providing you a service free of cost. Often the quality of the service itself is dependent on having access to data about many people and their behavior. The main take-away of the lesson is that students should be more informed consumers of the technology around them. They should be able to explain some of the tradeoffs between maintaining personal privacy and using innovative software free of cost.


Students will be able to:


Many consumers are unaware, or lack a sophisticated understanding, of how information about us is being collected and tracked by the technology we use every day. This issue goes beyond instances when data is stolen from companies or organizations we willingly provide it to. Instead, using computational tools, our movements through the physical and virtual world are being automatically tracked, stored, and analyzed. Cookies in our browsers keep a record of our movements on the Internet. Companies trade access to free tools and apps for the rights to track the data we upload to them. Advertisers develop personalized profiles of potential customers to better target advertising. Governments monitor traffic across the Internet at scales unimaginable without the use of computers. Yet we live in a world that increasingly relies on these digital tools, services and products. Most companies make great efforts to balance the tradeoffs between utility and privacy, but the issues can be tricky and raise confounding ethical dilemmas. We must now grapple with a question of just how much we value our privacy, and whether it is even possible to maintain in a digitized world.


Getting Started

After watching the following video, discuss with the students about (1) if they think tracking is necessary and what are its benefits and drawbacks (2) if they know how to find out what kind of data is tracked about them and by whom.

Ask the students to Write down 2 or 3 websites, web services, or apps that they use the most or rely on the most to stay connected to friends and family, or use for "productivity" like school work.

For each website / service / app, fill in the following information - just what they know off the top of their head from their own experience or memory:

  1. Name of Website / Service
  2. Do you have an account, or need to login?
  3. What kinds of data does (or could) this site potentially collect about you?
  4. Do you know if this data is shared with other people, companies or organizations? (If so, which ones?)
  5. Do you know how you would find out what data is collected or how it's shared?

Activity 1: Wall Street Journal Article: Users Get as Much as They Give

Ask the students to open and read the WSJ article (in the Resources section) in the format of their choice. After reading, they should discuss what they've learned and their thoughts with the teacher and any other students they may be working with. Ask them to think about the following questions:

Discuss the questions above as a class. Try to keep the conversation focused on economic terms and the central question of "What is the cost of 'free'?" It can be easy for this slip into a debate about privacy versus utility, in terms of government access to data, espionage, terrorism, etc. These are extremely important issues as well, but the conversation might get unwieldy. The focus of this lesson is about students becoming more informed consumers of the technology they use.

Activity 2: Read a Real Data Privacy Policy

Discussion Questions

Activity: AP Practice - Justify the Score

Go over the following portion of the AP Explore Performance Task written response prompt 2d with students:

The following sample student response received a 0:

Discuss with the students why the student would NOT get a point for Row 6 and would likely NOT be awarded a point for Row 7 either. Moreover, make a suggestion(s) for how to modify the response so the student would get the point.

AP Score Guide Rows 6 and 7

Wrap Up

Discussion: Where do you stand?


Which of the following statements is the LEAST TRUE about personal data that technology companies potentially collect about their users?

AP Practice: Respond to both of those prompts in light of what you learned about data privacy policies in this lesson. The "innovation" you choose could be narrow, like a specific app, or if it makes sense broad, like an entire company.

  1. Explain at least one beneficial effect and at least one harmful effect the computing innovation has had, or has the potential to have, on society, economy, or culture.
  2. Using specific details, describe: at least one data storage concern, data privacy concern, or data security concern directly related to the computing innovation.

The main objectives of your response are to:

Extended Learning

The links below are for the students who are interested in learning more about different perspectives of the privacy issue.

Pro-Utility Articles in the News

Pro-Privacy Articles in the News

Standards Alignment