Course Information

COM 473: Privacy and Surveillance in the Digital Era

Course Information

  • Tuesday & Thursday 2:00-3:15 MH 150
  • Office: Bronstein 212
  • Office Hours: Tuesday & Thursday 10:00-11:00

Course Description

Based on your cell phone history researchers can predict where you will be 24 hours from now. You can download and install software onto a computer to monitor and capture everything a user does. Nearly every thing you buy is recorded in a database. Corporations track every page view and click. Your email is easily read by third parties. Target knows when a customer is pregnant. Even the post office scans and digitally images every piece of mail it sends. It is impossible to not leave a digital trace, and all of these traces are being collected. In this class we will look at how our digital lives intersect with and effect our privacy. Is privacy dead in the age of constant surveillance? Should we even care? And who benefits from all this data collection? We will look to answer these question both on a technological level, what is possible, and a critical level, what does this mean for democracy and society. We will also seek to put this knowledge into practice, understanding and using what tools and techniques citizens can employ to regain privacy both in their lives as individuals and citizens.

Required Texts

  • Privacy a Very Short Introduction Raymond Wacks. ISBN 0198725949
  • Data and Goliath Bruce Schneier. ISBN 0393244814
  • The Private Eye Vaughn, Martin, Vicente. Comic.

In addition to the above there are several films we will watch throughout the course of the semester that you might need to rent on iTunes or have access to Netflix.

Course Overview & Learning Objectives

This course is structured around the idea that privacy is a social value that requires rigorous investigation. And secondarily, that this value is under re-negotiation in this current cultural moment. In class we will seek to understand this transformation from a variety of standpoints and understand the complicated discourse and multiple motives surrounding privacy discussions in the digital era. Using these discussions as a framework for better understanding we will also engage in several digital practices that will hopefully enable you to more actively construct and determine your own privacy. We will explore numerous privacy enabling technologies, such as encryption, content blockers, anti-tracking software, modifying permissions, Tor, etc. That is we will not only seek to understand this cultural moment, but practice what can be done in it as well.

Specifically, upon completion of this course students will:

  • Become familiar with the various discussions about privacy from a cultural and historical perspective, paying particular attention to the roll media and technology have played in the notion of privacy.
  • Develop an understanding of the contemporary debates around privacy in the digital era and understand how privacy is altered by digital technologies.
  • Engage with current debates and policy discussions about legislating privacy practices for businesses, governments, and individuals.
  • Practice and develop multiple strategies for determining ones own privacy.

Class Requirements

  • Reading Notes (35%): One of the most important things you will do in class is prepare for the class discussions, as part of this you will–through Google Documents–share with me your reading notes and class prep materials. I will evaluate these based on the thoroughness of your preparation. (During the first week of class we will discuss the specifics of this evaluation method.)
  • Digital Experiments (25%): As the semester progresses I will ask you to experiment with a range of technologies designed to enhance your privacy. Some of these will be as simple as changing the settings on technologies you already use, others might require you to totally re-think how you handle email. In each case I will ask you to both conduct the experiment and do a short write up of your experience.
  • Privacy Plan (20%): Over the course of the semester we will learn a great deal about the extent to which people, institutions, businesses, and government can compromise your privacy. While the extent of this compromise will no doubt concern you, the good news is that there are steps you can take to mitigate this problem. One of the goals of this class is to help you understand these privacy choices, and the steps you can take develop more control over your privacy. As such one of the significant assignments of the course will be to develop your own “Privacy Plan.” This will be a significant report that explores the technologies and techniques we have covered in class, along with a discussion of what is at stake, and the costs and benefits of other options. Specifically this Privacy Plan will be a written report coupled with a brief in class presentation at the end of the semester. Think of this as your major, ongoing, significant, research project for the semester.
  • Congressional Hearing (20%): The final for this course will take the form of a Mock Congressional Hearing. Over the course of the semester you will come to understand the various interests in the contemporary privacy debate, from businesses and institutions, to governments and individuals. As a way of exploring this debate each of you will take up a position as one of the interests in this debate and work to articulate and promote that actors interests. Some of you will take the role of corporations such as Google and Apple, others will articulate the position of government security, while others still will play citizen lobbying groups, and a few of you will take the position of a congressperson (who of course has their own interests). The grade for this will be in part your own individual preparation and performance, and in part how well you work together as a group.


As this course is highly interactive and practice/discussion-driven, your success is absolutely tethered to your presence and participation. The course will move quickly, and each successive meeting will build upon the concepts of the previous. Missing a class puts you at a serious disadvantage in terms of the larger semester arc. This is not the type of course where you can “ask for the notes” from a classmate and get the same learning experience. If you miss class you will miss something important.

Please come to class on time, prepared, having completed the assigned reading and writing, and ready to contribute to class discussions, to listen seriously and respectfully to the thoughts of others, and to participate in all in-class activities. Missing more than three classes will affect your grade. More than five absences can result in failing the course. If you need to miss class for religious reasons, please speak to me ahead of time. Absences for religious purposes do not count against the permitted number (as long as prior notification is given). Lateness is also unacceptable; if you arrive late to class you can be marked as absent. Leaving early also will count as an absence. Your primary responsibility is to be in class and fully present.

Course Website

The course website for this class can be found at You should get in the habit of checking this regularly as I will post suggestions and thoughts about the readings here, as well as links to other things that might interest the class. The syllabus can be found here as well, and any changes to the syllabus will be posted here. Please note: The syllabus might change throughout the course of the semester, indeed it probably will as we adjust to meet the needs of the class, so please develop a habit of checking the class website. If you forget the web address you can always find it from a much easier url to remember.

A Note on Technology

Because at its core this class is about how technology changes our culture, we will necessarily engage with a range of computer tools and web based applications. You do not need any prior skill, however; you merely need a willingness to engage and learn. A majority of the tools we will be using in class are web-based, thus you will not need any special software.

One further note about technology. As much as technology makes life easier, at times it can also be difficult (computer crashes, deleted work, slow internet connection, etc.) Plan accordingly: “the computer ate my homework” or “the internet was down” are not reasons to forgo doing the assigned work. It is in your best interest to leave extra time, and back up frequently, especially at first to ensure that technology does not get in the way of your work.

Digital Etiquette

Many of the assignments throughout the semester will require participation in online spaces. Students should work to preserve the same atmosphere of respect and consideration that occurs in the classroom. Disagreements may arise and consensus is not always possible (indeed disagreements are productive). However, name calling, harassing, flaming, trolling etc. is antithetical to the goals of this course.


Some of what we are going to be talking about dealing with ends up being fairly technical. One of the difficulties of privacy is that it requires active intervention on your part and the tools (as of yet) aren’t always easy. There are a few really good resources though:

Surveillance Self Defense: A project by the EFF this is an extensive list and set of tutorials that covers most of what we will talk about in class.

Tactical Technology Collective: A non profit organization that seeks to promote digital activism.

Citizen Media Lab: A research lab at the University of Toronto that works on human rights, global security and information technology.

Reddit: Privacy: Fairly active reddit discussion forum on privacy. Most things privacy related in the news will get discussed here. There are also tutorials and explanations in the sidebar.

How to Reach me

The best way to reach me is by email or you can find me online at I check email frequently throughout the day. If you email me and do not receive a response within 48 hours please feel free to email me again (I might not have received your first one) and give me a reminder. I promise not to consider this harassing. Don’t call my office phone though; voice mail is annoying and I tend to check it far less frequently than email.

My office hours are TR 10:00-11:00. My office is on the second floor of Bronstein.

University Policies

Academic Honesty: Please familiarize yourself with the University’s Academic Honesty Policy.

Students with Disabilities

Requests for Accommodations:

Reasonable academic accommodations may be provided to students who submit appropriate documentation of their disability. Students are encouraged to contact the Office of Student Disability Services at or 610.660.1774(voice) or 610.660-1620(TTY) if they have or think they may have a disability and wish to determine eligibility for academic accommodations.

Grievance Procedures for Students with Disabilities Appeal Process: The Office of Student Disability Services will seek to provide reasonable accommodations to qualified students with disabilities. However, there may be times when a disagreement as to what is considered a reasonable accommodation will occur between the student and the University. The student has a right to file a grievance for complaints regarding a requested or offered reasonable accommodation on the basis of a disability under Section 504 and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and University policies. If you have any questions regarding the appeals process, please contact Dr. Christine Mecke, Director Student Disability Services – Bellarmine – Room G10 –

For further information regarding accommodations, please click the link

A Final Note

Should any aspect of class confuse/concern/trouble you, or if you have questions about any of this, please see me.