Teaching for Information Rights Defense and Offense
Imagine that the United States’ Constitution and Bill of Rights were being re-written today. I’ll bet that something would be said about personal rights of Information. I’m no constitutional law expert, but it looks to my novice eyes as if several rights about information are already there. We Americans already have a right to own property, and information can represent intellectual property. We already have a right to privacy, which is used to protect our information from perusal. We also have a right to bear arms. While there is some debate as to whether that means individually or in the sense of state militia, I believe that most people believe that they have a right to protect themselves and their property.
Should we teach students how to utilize information technology as an offensive force? I’m not suggesting teach them to be rogue hackers or information terrorists. Some interpret the right to bear arms to mean that people should be invested with the power to overthrow their government, should the people see that as necessary. Whether you subscribe to that belief or not, it’s clear that uprisings around the world have been enabled by information technology, from fax machines in China to Twitter and Facebook in Iran. I watched “Valkyrie” this weekend, and visited the Holocaust Museum in DC this last summer, and both experiences impressed and shocked me with how well Nazi Germany used information technology to support and further their agenda. Information is a property, and information technology is a form of arms. Students should be aware of how information technology can be used as an offensive force in order to learn how to defend against it.
Most of the new courses being devised to teach “Computational Thinking” aim toward defining the big ideas of computation, the powerful “automation of abstractions” that enables our society. I’ve been thinking lately about what we should be teaching students in terms of being able to protect themselves and how information technology can be used as arms. What should we teach?
Here are a few items on my list:
- All information that we put in a computer is represented as bits. A “bit” can be represented as a voltage in a wire, or a value in the red channel of a pixel, or as a statistical abnormality in a pattern. Meaningful data (including code, as for a virus or worm) can be hidden in lots of ways.
- Information can be automated. Programs can generate spam messages that look tailored to the individual and sent to millions.
- Information takes time to process. Thus, too many hits on a server can result in Denial of Service.
- Information can be correlated. All students should see how a database “join” works, so that they understand how information about them can be connected to other data elsewhere to develop shockingly complete pictures of themselves (possibly enough to enable identity theft).
- All digitized representations are representations, most likely lacking in some detail or some data. For example, CD’s can’t capture all sound (like high-pitched sounds that only a dog can hear), and digital pictures have limits to their resolution and color fidelity. Similarly, there are holes in any digital information source, which might be exploited.
- The Internet is open. You should presume that all of your sent email, including attachments, is readable by anyone anywhere, as if the reader was sitting at your computer. To protect the information you send on the network, it should be encrypted, so that a potential reader couldn’t read it (without the right codes) even if seated at your computer.
- Internet protocols are just agreements. They are not fixed in stone, nor defined by physical or mathematical laws. They are mostly simple, so it’s possible to write clients and servers for them. If necessary, new ones can be recreated.
Most of these are probably items on most “big ideas” lists. I’m just suggesting a different perspective to come up with them. Now, I don’t believe the Constitution and Bill of Rights are being re-written today. That’s just a thought experiment. I do wonder if we should be teaching about information technology (both as property and arms) to support our students in protecting their existing rights. It’s a different purpose for “Computational Thinking” — in a defensive and offensive perspective.