Illustration for "Search Is Improving"

Teachers’ Resources, Module 6:

Just because something can’t be found today, doesn’t mean it can’t be found tomorrow

About This Lesson Module:

The lesson elements in this module teach students about the privacy principle “Just because something can’t be found today, doesn’t mean it can’t be found tomorrow”. 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 how changes in technology and regulations can affect who has access to their data; students can use techniques to monitor and limit the exposure of their data.

Target Age: High school, college undergraduate.

Learning Objectives
  1. Students can describe (in general terms) how a search engine works, including that results are constantly being refreshed to include new information and that the search engine itself is continually updated to deal with newer types of information.
  2. Students can provide examples of offline data that can be digitized and put online.
  3. Students can give example scenarios describing how changes to laws and regulations could affect the availability of personal information.
  4. Students can briefly summarize the purpose of privacy policies and the effects that their ever-changing nature has on users’ privacy.
  5. Students can investigate what information about them is available online, and assess which types of information — social, financial, etc. — are currently available to different entities.
  6. Students can monitor changes in privacy policies and default privacy settings and evaluate how those changes might affect who can see what information about them.
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 7, Global Impact:

  • 7.3.1G. Privacy and security concerns arise in the development and use of computational systems and artifacts.

The following Essential Knowledge is also touched on:

  • Under Big Idea 3: Data and Information: 3.1.1E, 3.2.1C, 3.2.1D, 3.3.1F.
  • Under Big Idea 7: Global Impact: 7.1.1F, 7.1.1N, 7.1.2G, 7.2.1A, 7.3.1A, 7.3.1H, 7.3.1J, 7.3.1K, 7.3.1L.
CSTA K–12 Computer Science Standards (Level 3 — High School)

The following learning objectives are touched on:

  • Under Level 3, Course 3A: Computer Science in the Modern World: CI.10.
  • Under Level 3, Course 3B: Computer Science Concepts and Practices: CI.2; CI.6
ACM Computer Science Curricula 2013 (CS2013) Guidelines (Undergraduate)

The following Learning Outcomes are touched on:

  • Under Social Issues and Professional Practice: 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: 8-12 minutes.
What You’ll Need: Blackboard/whiteboard (optional).

Ignite Question

Have you ever searched for your name in a search engine, like Google? Did you find anything that surprised you?

Quick Knowledge Check

If you can’t find something in an online search engine now, does that mean no one will ever be able to find it in a search engine?

Follow-Up Questions:

  • Is it easier to find information about you now than it was a couple of years ago, even if that information hasn’t changed? Why or why not?

    Target Answer: It is becoming easier to find information about someone, for two main reasons. First of all, the sheer volume of information online is expanding tremendously, through user uploads and the translation of offline records to online data. At the same time, search techniques are improving all the time, to better understand text queries and even to include searching the content of multimedia items (not just their tags).

  • If a record only exists offline — for example, an old photo, census document, or medical record — does that mean that it will never be searchable online? Why or why not?

    Target Answer: Just because something is not currently online does not mean that it won’t be in the future. Photos can be scanned and medical records can be digitized. (Access to online medical records is generally restricted, but breaches are an issue.) Old census records, which the government collects and keeps in paper form, are made public after seventy years and are available online from other organizations, often for a fee. Making information widely accessible on the Internet is desirable for consumers and profitable for providers, so it is safest to expect that everything will end up online eventually.

“Explore” Activities:

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

Whole-Class Brainstorm & Discussion: What Do You Wish You Could Find?

Estimated Time: 10-12 minutes.
What You’ll Need: Blackboard/whiteboard (optional).

Ask students to come up with examples of things they would like to be able to find online, but can’t (today). Examples can be written on the board.

If students are stuck, ask:

  • Is there something you looked for recently but couldn’t find?
  • What would help you get your homework done super-quick?

Pick a few interesting examples from the list and ask:

  • Why do you think that type of data isn’t findable? For example…
    • It’s online, but we don’t have the technology yet to identify and search for it?
    • It’s always password-protected/it’s illegal to share it?
    • There isn’t enough demand, so no one’s put it online?
  • Would you want this type of data to be publicly available so you could find it using a search engine (like Google), or should it be more protected?
  • Would making this data searchable have consequences for anyone’s privacy? How? For example…
    • Directly, by revealing something someone didn’t want to have shared.
    • Indirectly, by revealing something that could be put together with other information to draw an inference about something private.

Caveat: Of course, students may suggest examples of types of data that are publicly available online, but that they don’t know how to find or don’t know about. To avoid too many of these examples, this discussion activity is most appropriate for students who have a good handle on performing online search.

Small-Group Activity: Search Way Back

Estimated Time: 20-30 minutes.
What You’ll Need: Computers for students, with Internet connections; paper and pens (optional).

In this online-research activity, students use the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine to investigate how the services offered by various types of search engines have changed and expanded over time.

  1. Ask the class to come up with a list of different search websites that they think have been around for a while (preferably including different types of sites: general web-search sites like, personal-data aggregators like, public-records search sites like…).
  2. Once you have a list of around five websites, have each student — or each group of students — pick a search website, then go to the Wayback Machine at and enter their chosen site.
  3. Tell students to start with the first snapshot, then look at one snapshot every two years after that, up to the present. They should explore the changes in a website’s formatting, interface, and services. Have students jot down notes about important changes in the types of search offered by each website, with the year they occurred (e.g., “Google adds Image Search: 2001”).
  4. Have students answer the following questions about their chosen website:
    • What services does the site offer now that it did not previously?
    • Do these new services expose new information? How?
    • Could this affect people’s privacy?
    • What other aspects of life might be impacted by the changes in this site? Does it improve convenience?
    • What surprised you about the website’s old format/services in comparison with the new?
    • How do you think this website might change in the future?
  5. Go over students’ findings as a class.
Options and Extensions:

  • For a shorter assignment, you can give students a list of search sites rather than having them brainstorm.
  • For a more involved assignment, each student or group can look up several similar sites and compare their histories.
  • Have students research the history of the sites and what they’ve offered using other sources (besides just looking at changes to the home page).
Notes and Caveats:

  • For websites with menus at the top (like Google, more recently), you may need to point out to students that they can close the Wayback Machine display at the top of the window.
  • Sometimes site snapshots may not load correctly in the Wayback Machine. For the sites suggested above, such cases are rare, and students can simply try another nearby date.
  • This activity does not work as well for websites where one needs an account (such as social-networking sites); it’s best to stick to open search sites.

“Explain” Activities:

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

Video for "Search Is Improving"

Estimated Time: 5 minutes.
What You’ll Need: Computer, speakers, and projector.

“Search Is Improving” talks about some of the technological, legal, and institutional reasons why something that can’t be found online today might well be findable tomorrow, and how we can prepare for the future. 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 "Search Is Improving"

Estimated Time: 10-15 minutes.
What You’ll Need: Computer, projector, and speakers.

These slides can be used for an overview lecture on the basic concepts underlying the principle “Just because something can’t be found today, doesn’t mean it can’t be found tomorrow”. The slides are accompanied by Notes with details and examples to guide your lecture.

Access Slide Deck: “Search Is Improving”

Coming soon! We will be adding a graphic organizer to guide students’ notetaking.

Related Readings from Blown to Bits

The Blown to Bits textbook covers a wide spectrum of ideas related to Internet privacy, with a particular focus on the new, unique, ever-changing nature of the Internet.

Online Version: Blown to Bits: Your Life, Liberty, and Happiness After the Digital Explosion, by Hal Abelson, Ken Ledeen, and Harry Lewis

You can assign students all or parts of the following chapters for an in-depth but engaging exploration of the ideas covered in Module 5.

  • Chapter 1: Digital Explosion: Why Is It Happening, and What Is at Stake? — Excerpt
  • Chapter 4: Needles in the Haystack: Google and Other Brokers in the Bits Bazaar — Excerpt
  • Content Advisory: Blown to Bits refers to STI outbreaks and discusses the dangers of sending sexually explicit content online.

“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.

Making Connections: Small-Group Discussion Questions

Estimated Time: Depends on protocol chosen.
What You’ll Need: Blackboard/whiteboard (optional).

Use one or more of the following questions to help students digest the information presented in the lesson so far and personalize the content. The questions are compatible with many common classroom discussion protocols. We suggest Think-Pair-Share, Inside/Outside Circles, Chalk Talk, or Listening Dyads, but many others can be found on the NSRF’s protocol list.

  • If you and a big-name celebrity were to post something on the Internet at the same time, whose post would be available on a search engine first? Why?

    Possible Answer: Depending on how popular the students are, the celebrity’s post will probably show up quicker due to the millions of followers they have on different social media apps, the number of die-hard fans they might have, and past popular posts.

    • Possible Follow-Up: Whose information would be more valuable to businesses or the government? Why?
  • Imagine that in the near future, multimedia analysis gets good enough that all pictures and videos can be automatically matched to a location and time. Also, every single individual that is visible in the foreground or background can be identified automatically. What would be your main privacy concern for this new technology? How would this impact your sharing behavior?
  • Do you think development of advanced search methods should be “abandoned” to protect our privacy? Why or why not?
  • How often do you check the privacy settings on the websites you use? Now that you’ve learned more about how privacy settings change, will you check for these settings more frequently?
  • Which websites allow you to make certain information “unsearchable”? What does that mean? Discuss the tradeoffs involved in your decision about what to make searchable.
    • Possible Follow-Up: How would changing those settings change your information footprint?

      Note: Remind students that you can’t make your footprint smaller, but you may be able to change its impact!

Critical Reading Activity: New Search Technologies

Estimated Time: 7-15 minutes per article.
What You’ll Need: Printouts of articles, or access to networked computers for students.

Assign students to read these stories in small groups and answer the questions.

Introduction for Students: Online search continues to improve by giving more relevant results, better tying together scattered bits of data, and letting users look for new kinds of information. These also make it easier to find more private information than what people intended to share on the Internet. These articles cover some innovations that could have unexpected effects on privacy.

Facebook’s New ‘DeepFace’ Program Is Just as Creepy as It Sounds
  • Summary: With facial recognition technology called DeepFace, Facebook’s computers can match faces in untagged photos with Facebook user profiles.
  • Content Advisory: Ads run before and after the video. The content of the ads is unpredictable.
Google Photos: Should You Be Worried About Privacy?
  • Summary: The Google Photos app raises questions about the privacy and security of photos stored online; users ponder whether or not Google can be trusted with a massive archive of photos.
Facebook Graph: Why the New Search Tool Is Scary, and How to Protect Your Privacy
  • Summary: Facebook’s Graph Search tool allows users to search for friends based on a whole host of categories, making it much easier to find people on Facebook without even knowing their names.
Finding a Better Way to Search the Whole Internet
  • Summary: While Google and other search engines are effective for the majority of searches, a search engine called Memex focuses on retrieving results from dark corners of the deep web.
  • Content Advisory: The article notes that the deep web is a resource for drug dealers and sex traffickers.
For Each Article, Ask the Students:
  • What kind of information does this search tool expose?
  • How does this affect people’s privacy?
  • What are other ways that this tool could be used, beyond what’s described in the article?
  • What are some benefits of the tool?
  • Are there ways the tool could be used for harm?
Optional Extensions
  • Assign student to find other/newer examples of advances in search that might make it easier for users and companies to find personal information about others.
  • Have groups report back to the class with a summary of their article and their answers to the questions.
  • Use a cooperative learning structure such as POGIL to encourage all students to actively participate in the group.

“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: “Search Is Improving: Review Questions”

Teachers: Find out how to access the answer key for the Module 6 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 Search Is Improving.

Contact us and let us know what you think!

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