On Tuesday, the nonprofit digital rights organization Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission alleging violations of student privacy by Google. The 16-page complaint and request for investigation, injunction, and relief accuses the tech giant of violating the K-12 school service provider pledge to safeguard student privacy.
The complaint is part of a larger campaign by the EFF to call attention to the issue.
Three main alleged violations are outlined in the complaint. First, the EFF claims that when using Google for Education accounts, student personal information unrelated to education is collected, maintained, and used by the company. It also says a feature in the Chrome browser enables Google to collect and use students' browsing history and other data "unrelated to authorized educational or school purposes."
Last but not least, on Chromebooks straight out of the box, the Chrome browser settings are defaulted to “Sync,” allowing Google to “track, store on its servers, and data mine for non-advertising purposes" every site visited, search term used, result clicked on, YouTube video watched, and password saved by students.
The Chromebook craze
The Google-powered Chromebooks are currently used more than any other personal computing device in American classrooms, largely due to their inexpensive price tag, which can be as low as $149. They’re also "built to be abused," making them perfect for K-12 classrooms. Between April and June of this year, Chromebooks accounted for 50% of all K-12 tech device sales.
The inexpensive laptops also come equipped with a suite of Google’s Apps for Education (GAFE) pre-installed. The products are aimed at boosting productivity and learning, and according to Google, a total of 50 million users are currently using GAFE around the world in 190 countries.
Yet the EFF says that because GAFE comes pre-installed, that it's easy for the company to “spy” and collect student data — whether it's intentional or not.
The Safeguard Student Privacy Pledge
As of December, the Student Privacy Pledge currently boasts a total of 206 signatories, including heavyweights like Apple, Microsoft, and AT&T. It’s endorsed by President Obama, and was launched by the Future of Privacy Forum and the Software & Information Industry Association (SIIA) last October.
Initially, the pledge involved some of the most high-profile brands in education technology companies, like Edmodo, Gaggle, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, and more. Yet the idea caught one, and eventually involved even bigger companies.
Google, however, was slow to agree to sign onto the pledge. Last January, Education Week reported on the heavy criticism of privacy practices that some felt would lead to the ad-related use of students' personal information. The company subsequently revised its policies.
In particular, criticism was leveled at Google’s scanning and indexing of student e-mail messages within GAFE. The privacy breach was revealed only after nine plaintiffs sued Google, claiming that the data-mining facilitated by Google Apps for Education constituted illegal wiretapping. That case, Google Inc. Gmail Litigation, 13-md-02430, was filed in California. Google also currently faces other suits related to alleged privacy violations.
A wider campaign: 'Spying on Students'
The EFF’s “Spying on Students” campaign, launched on Dec. 1, is eyeing Google as a primary target. Overall, the campaign is meant to increase awareness around privacy risks connected to school-supplied electronic devices and software. The organization is also executing an open survey to collect information on school-issued technology and the use of cloud-based education platforms nationwide. Its simple guide to Chromebook security settings is available for free online.
“Children usually have little or no say about which devices they’re assigned, and we believe that the safety of their sensitive personal information should lie in the hands of parents and trusted school officials – not private companies,” the EFF states.
The nonprofit wants the FTC to order Google to stop collecting information not used for educational purposes, and to also destroy any and all information it has already collected from students.
“In short, they [Google] are spying on students – and school districts, which often provide inadequate privacy policies (or no privacy at all) are helping them," the organization said, holding up one case involving California’s Roseville City School District as an example. There, the district didn’t obtain the requisite parental consent needed for students to begin using Google technology, a move that concerned some families.
“The district provided no details about the types of devices students would be required to use or the data that would be collected on students,” the EFF noted in a blog post about Roseville.
Students were not given the option to opt-out of using the mandatory technology in the classroom, and at least one parent was able to exempt his daughter from using Google products.
EFF staff attorney Nate Cardozo told Education Dive that other tech devices like iPads are "absolutely" also being examined by the organization, advising those keeping an eye on the proceedings to "stay tuned."
Google says its tools are in compliance
In a blog post published Thursday morning, Google expressed confidence "that our tools comply with both the law and our promises, including the Student Privacy Pledge." The post noted that whether students or teachers can use consumer services like YouTube, Maps, and Blogger with GAFE accounts is under schools' control.
For its part, the Future of Privacy Forum released a statement saying that it doesn't believe there's any merit to the EFF complaint since the Chrome settings can be switched off by school admins.
The EFF has countered the responses, noting that Google’s alleged student tracking isn’t limited to Chrome's “Sync” feature alone.
“Google has promised not to build profiles on students or serve them ads only within Google Apps for Education services,” the EFF stated. “When a student goes to a different Google service, however, and they’re still logged in under their educational account, Google associates their activity on that service with their educational account, and then serves them ads on at least some of those non-GAFE services based on that activity.”
According to EFF, the activity of a student logging into their educational account and using Google News or Google Books to conduct research for a report, for example, would be fed into an ad profile attached to the educational account.
Still, both the EFF complaint and Google’s response have gained wide media attention, meaning that most districts and administrators using Google platforms will likely consider their own student privacy safeguard practices — especially for those that may have consented on behalf of their students without consulting families first.
The full complaint is available here:
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