The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) against Google for collecting and data mining school children’s personal information, including their Internet searches—a practice EFF uncovered while researching its “Spying on Students” campaign.
The campaign was created to raise awareness about the privacy risks of school-supplied electronic devices and software. EFF examined Google’s Chromebook and Google Apps for Education (GAFE), a suite of educational cloud-based software programs used in many schools across the country by students as young as seven years old.
While Google does not use student data for targeted advertising within a subset of Google sites, EFF found that Google’s “Sync” feature for the Chrome browser is enabled by default on Chromebooks sold to schools. This allows Google to track, store on its servers, and data mine for non-advertising purposes, records of every Internet site students visit, every search term they use, the results they click on, videos they look for and watch on YouTube, and their saved passwords. Google doesn’t first obtain permission from students or their parents and since some schools require students to use Chromebooks, many parents are unable to prevent Google’s data collection.
Google’s practices fly in the face of commitments made when it signed the Student Privacy Pledge, a legally enforceable document whereby companies promise to refrain from collecting, using, or sharing students’ personal information except when needed for legitimate educational purposes or if parents provide permission.
“Despite publicly promising not to, Google mines students’ browsing data and other information, and uses it for the company’s own purposes. Making such promises and failing to live up to them is a violation of FTC rules against unfair and deceptive business practices,” said EFF Staff Attorney Nate Cardozo. “Minors shouldn’t be tracked or used as guinea pigs, with their data treated as a profit center. If Google wants to use students’ data to ‘improve Google products,’ then it needs to get express consent from parents.”
Google told EFF that it will soon disable a setting on school Chromebooks that allows Chrome Sync data, such as browsing history, to be shared with other Google services. While that is a small step in the right direction, it doesn’t go nearly far enough to correct the violations of the Student Privacy Pledge currently inherent in Chromebooks being distributed to schools.
EFF’s filing with the FTC also reveals that the administrative settings Google provides to schools allow student personal information to be shared with third-party websites in violation of the Student Privacy Pledge. The ability to collect and potentially share student information follows children whenever they use Chrome to log into their Google accounts, whether on a parents’ Apple iPad, friend’s smartphone or home computer.
“We commend schools for bringing technology into the classroom. Chromebooks and Google Apps for Education have enormous benefits for teaching and preparing students for the future. But devices and cloud services used in schools must, without compromise or loopholes, protect student privacy,” said EFF Staff Attorney Sophia Cope. “We are calling on the FTC to investigate Google’s conduct, stop the company from using student personal information for its own purposes, and order the company to destroy all information it has collected that’s not for educational purposes.”