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Teachers’ Resources, Module 2:

There is no anonymity on the Internet

About This Lesson Module:

The lesson elements in this module teach students about the privacy principle “There is no anonymity on the Internet”. They are designed to be independent and flexible, so you can incorporate them into any size lesson plan.

Summary of Learning Objectives: Students can explain (in general terms) how data tracked by online services can be used to identify them; students can use tools and techniques to reduce the effectiveness of tracking.

Target Age: High school, college undergraduate.

Learning Objectives
  1. Students can explain (in general terms) how data aggregation, data mining, and inference are carried out, and can give examples of how these techniques can be used to match “anonymous” users to their real identities.
  2. Students can explain what online behavioral tracking is, can give examples of what types of information can be gathered about them, and can give examples of how personal devices can be used to track and collect that information.
  3. Students can give examples of what types of information can still be collected by websites when they are using their browser’s “private browsing” or “incognito” mode.
  4. Students can explain how the amount and type of information available about them online affects the likelihood that someone can connect their online personas with their offline identities.
  5. Students can give examples of effective tools and techniques that reduce the ability of websites, apps, and services to track their online behavior, explain (in general terms) how they work, and enumerate some of their limitations.
Curriculum Standards Addressed
Lesson elements in this module can be used to address the following computer-science curricular standards.

AP Computer Science Principles Curriculum Framework

Elements substantially address the following Essential Knowledge under Big Idea 3, Data and Information:

  • 3.3.1F. Security and privacy concerns arise with data containing personal information.

Elements substantially address the following Essential Knowledge under Big Idea 7, Global Impact:

  • 7.3.1G. Privacy and security concerns arise in the development and use of computational systems and artifacts.
  • 7.3.1H. Aggregation of information, such as geolocation, cookies, and browsing history, raises privacy and security concerns.
  • 7.3.1I. Anonymity in online interactions can be enabled through the use of online anonymity software and proxy servers.
  • 7.3.1M. Targeted advertising is used to help individuals, but it can be misused at both individual and aggregate levels.

The following Essential Knowledge is also touched on:

  • Under Big Idea 3: Data and Information: 3.1.1E, 3.2.1C, 3.2.2D, 3.3.1A.
  • Under Big Idea 6: The Internet: 6.1.1C, 6.1.1E, 6.3.1A.
  • Under Big Idea 7: Global Impact: 7.3.1A, 7.3.1D, 7.3.1J, 7.3.1K, 7.3.1L.
CSTA K–12 Computer Science Standards (Level 3 — High School)

Elements substantially address the following learning objective under Level 3, Course 3A: Computer Science in the Modern World:

  • CI.10. Describe security and privacy issues that relate to computer networks.

The following learning objectives are also touched on:

  • Under Level 3, Course 3B: Computer Science Concepts and Practices: CI.2.
ACM Computer Science Curricula 2013 (CS2013) Guidelines (Undergraduate)

The following Learning Outcomes are touched on:

  • Under Information Assurance and Security: Threats and Attacks 5; Security Policy and Governance 1.
  • Under Information Management: Data Mining 1.
  • Under Social Issues and Professional Practice: Social Context 9; Privacy and Civil Liberties 3, 5.

“Engage” Activities:

Use one or more of these lesson elements to introduce the topic and ignite students’ interest.

Quick Opening Questions (Whole-Class Mini-Discussion)

Estimated Time: 5-10 minutes.
What You’ll Need: Blackboard/whiteboard (optional).

Ignite Question

What does it mean to be “anonymous”?

Fanning the Fires:

  • Why would someone want to be anonymous?

High-Level Answer: Being anonymous means that your activities cannot be tied to an identity or a unique identifier (e.g., your name).

Details/Background for Teachers: Online, anonymity means being able to perform activities without them being uniquely attributed to you. Do you want everyone in the world to know the websites that you visit, your search history, or the information that you post to social networking websites? Even if you have nothing to hide or the information seems benign, most humans desire a certain amount of privacy. (For more on why you might not want all your activities attributed to you, see Module 3: Information Is Valuable.)

Knowledge Check

Is it possible to be anonymous on the Internet?

Follow-Up Prompts:

  • Why is it difficult to be anonymous on the Internet? How might someone figure out who you are?
  • Can anyone be anonymous on the Internet? What about a computer expert?

High-Level Answer: It is virtually impossible to truly remain anonymous on the Internet, because any online activity leaves a digital trail. This is true even for computer experts. There are a variety of ways to obscure this trail, but none are foolproof.

Details/Background for Teachers: Even if you don’t give a name, the way that your devices communicate with the Internet allows them to be uniquely identified, which means that your activities on them could be tied to you personally. For instance, every device has a unique Internet address (known as an “IP address”), which is necessary to communicate with other computers. Besides IP addresses, your devices transmit many other unique identifiers. Any number of people or organizations could possibly find out what you’re doing online, including ISPs, phone companies, governments, police agencies, hackers, etc. (An expert can avoid some types of tracking and monitoring, but not all.)

There are many anonymity-protecting technologies that can each prevent certain types of identification, but all of them have shortcomings. For instance, “private browsing” mode prevents your web browser from saving most types of cookies, but does nothing to prevent a website from tracking your IP address.

News Stories You Can Use
The Quick Hook

Estimated Time: 2-3 minutes per story.
What You’ll Need: Computer and projector (optional).

These news items can be used to illustrate the real-life consequences of privacy breaches. If you have a computer and projector, you can show the stories on a screen as you talk about them. If not, you can simply summarize them verbally.

Ferguson: Anonymous Reveals KKK Members’ Identities
  • Summary: Hacker activist group Anonymous reveals the identities of KKK members who have threatened protesters fighting police brutality in Ferguson, MO.
Suspected Anonymous Hacker Busted By FBI — Thanks To A Racy Photo
  • Summary: A member of the hacker activist group Anonymous is caught by the FBI when he posts a geotagged personal photo along with illegally obtained information.
  • Content Advisory: The photo is of the hacker’s girlfriend’s scantily-clad breasts, and is featured prominently in any article on the case.
Ga. Man Awarded $404,000 for Libelous Internet Postings
  • Summary: An acquaintance ruins a man’s reputation by anonymously posting lies about him, but his lawyer subpoenas her IP address and successfully sues her for libel.
  • Content Advisory: One of the libelous accusations is that the target is a pedophile.
Optional Extension

Estimated Additional Time: 5-7 minutes per story.

For each news item, ask the students:

  • What identifying information was disclosed in this case?
  • How was that information disclosed?
  • What were the consequences of the information being disclosed?
  • How could this person make themselves less likely to be identified in the future?

“Explore” Activities:

Use one or more of these lesson elements to ground students’ learning in firsthand experience with how privacy works.

Whole-Group Interactive Activity: Narrowing It Down on Social Media

Estimated Time: 5 – 7 minutes.
What You’ll Need: No materials/equipment needed.

This variant on “Guess Who?” demonstrates how easy it is to identify someone by combining only a few basic pieces of information about them — basic information that can probably be found online. Students use personal characteristics to identify a target student known only to the teacher.

  1. Select a student who will be your target (but don’t tell the class).
  2. Have all the students stand up.
  3. Tell the class to name some types of personal characteristics that people often share on social media (for example, age or graduation year) or that can easily be seen or guessed by looking at someone’s social-media posts or photos (for example, hair color, ear/facial piercings, whether they wear glasses). Encourage them to name relatively objective characteristics.
  4. As each characteristic is named, tell students to sit down who don’t have the same characteristic as the target student (e.g., if the students say, “Language,” you could say, “Everybody who doesn’t speak Spanish, sit down.”).
  5. Once the target has been identified, point out how few steps it took to pick that person out, with minimal information. Then ask students to think about how someone could do that process automatically with all of the information they’ve posted online.
Small-Group Worksheet Activity: Filling in Your Footprint

Estimated Time: 35 minutes.
What You’ll Need: Copies of worksheet; pens/pencils.

In this activity, students brainstorm about what information is available about them online and who can see it, then discuss the relationship between information exposure and online anonymity.

Download Worksheet: “Filling in Your Footprint”

  1. Hand out a copy of the footprint outline to each student.
  2. Have each student write down some of the data that is already available about them online (name, address, phone number, school, pictures, friends, family members, purchase history, etc.) on the footprint. If a particular item is very exposed, i.e., easily accessible to many other people online, have them write it in bigger letters; likewise, if it is not very exposed, have them write it in smaller letters.
  3. Once they are done, have the students discuss the worksheet questions in small groups.
  4. Wrap-Up Explanation: There is a direct relationship between the size and level of exposure of your information footprint and how anonymous you can be online. The more information people (or businesses, etc.) can find about you and connect together, the less likely it is that you will be able to maintain anonymity online.

“Explain” Activities:

Use one or more of these lesson elements to provide students with important facts and underlying concepts.

Video for "There's No Anonymity"

Estimated Time: 9 minutes.
What You’ll Need: Computer, speakers, and projector.

“There’s No Anonymity” explains how connections can be made between your online activities that make it impossible to guarantee anonymity online — and also describes some things you can do to make it harder to figure out who you are. Part of the TROPE video series, with humorous illustrations by Ketrina Yim that turn each point into a memorable story.

Includes human-generated closed captions.

Slide Deck for "There's No Anonymity"

Estimated Time: 7-12 minutes.
What You’ll Need: Computer and projector; copies of graphic organizer (optional).

These slides can be used for an overview lecture on the basic concepts underlying the principle “There is no anonymity on the Internet”. The slides are accompanied by Notes with details and examples to guide your lecture.

Access Slide Deck: “There’s No Anonymity”

Use the custom Graphic Organizer to help students follow along and take notes.

Access Worksheet: Graphic Organizer for “There’s No Anonymity” Presentation

“Elaborate” Activities:

Use one or more of these lesson elements to go deeper into the underlying concepts and/or let students practice important privacy skills.

Worksheet Activity: How to Protect Your Anonymity... Maybe.

Estimated Time: 30-60 minutes.
What You’ll Need: Copies of worksheet; computers or mobile devices.

For this assignment, students research a tool or method that claims it will allow them to retain their anonymity online, and use their research and their understanding of the concepts in the module to make a critical evaluation of those claims. May be used as an individual or group in-class assignment, or as homework.

Download Worksheet: “How to Protect Your Anonymity… Maybe.”

  • Create your own toolbox by adding or subtracting from the list. (Note: The tools should be easy to use and safe to look up in a search engine!)
  • Include options available in common web browsers, for blocking or reducing tracking by websites. This is a more complex assignment, as students will need to find assessments of a method rather than reviews of a tool. Options/methods to research include:
    • Use private-browsing modes (Private Browsing, Incognito, etc.);
    • Refuse all cookies / refuse (only) third-party cookies / accept cookies, but delete at end of browsing session;
    • Turn off JavaScript;
    • Send a “Do Not Track” message to websites.
Notes and Warnings:

  • This assignment supports general consumer-readiness skills. It may be necessary to provide students with additional guidance on how to identify professional, independent sources for product reviews (or, if you wish to allow them to use consumer reviews, how to critically evaluate those in turn).
  • The listed tools are well-known and should be safe to research. However, as with any assignment involving online security and privacy, the instructor is advised to keep an eye on students, as malware disseminators often masquerade as providers of security or privacy software and advice.
  • For the bonus assignment, note that some tools are much easier to use than others.

Other Resources for "Elaborate": De-Identifying Your Classmates

Estimated Time: 20-25 minutes.

What You’ll Need: Whiteboard/blackboard, pens/pencils and paper, hat or basket.

In this activity, students learn how public records with identifying information (in this case, birthdays) can be linked with supposedly anonymized data, and experiment with how they can group ranges of identifiers (birthdays by month, year, etc.) to better de-identify the private data.

Get the Original Activity Description: De-Identifying Your Classmates

(Produced by Latanya Sweeney of the Data Privacy Lab at Harvard University.)

“Evaluate” Activities:

Use one or more of these lesson elements to assess students’ understanding of the material and development of new skills.

Review Questions (Quiz/Homework)

Estimated Time: 10-15 minutes.
What You’ll Need: Copies of review sheet.

This learning assessment can be used as an in-class quiz or as homework.

Download Assessment: “There’s No Anonymity: Review Questions”

Teachers: Find out how to access the answer key for the Module 2 review questions.

More for Teachers

Resources and background information to help you brush up on the technical nitty-gritty and be prepared for student questions.

Coming soon! In the meantime, check out the main web page for There’s No Anonymity.

Other Recommended Classroom Resources for “There’s No Anonymity”
Lesson Plan: What’s the Big Deal About Internet Privacy?

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