Classroom Technology

Complaint Accuses Google of Breaking Student-Privacy Pledge

By Leo Doran — December 04, 2015 4 min read
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A watchdog organization has asked the Federal Trade Commission to investigate Google’s privacy practices, alleging that the tech giant has gone back on a public pledge to keep students’ data confidential.

Citing the Student Privacy Pledge that Google signed last year, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a San Francisco-based digital rights and privacy advocacy organization, filed a complaint with the FTC calling for increased scrutiny of Google’s Chromebook and Google Apps for Education.

The nonprofit alleges that when students are logged into their Google Apps accounts, the company collects non-educational data that is stored away, and “used by Google for its own benefit, unrelated to authorized educational or school purposes.”

In addition, the complaint takes issue with Google’s alleged practice of selling Chromebooks to schools pre-programed to copy student information to their servers through a “sync” function, “enabling Google to collect and use students’ entire browsing history and other data.”

Because many districts require students to use Chromebooks, and because parents typically are not asked to approve the “sync” feature, the practice would arguably appear to be in violation of the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act.

The accusations are just the latest turn in an ongoing debate about the privacy practices of ed-tech companies like Google.

Parents and school officials have raised concerns about the security of student information, and about tech companies cataloging personal information for advertising or other reasons, with little if any oversight. Some industry officials have argued that the issue is often distorted, and that schools’ attempts to transform teaching and learning through technology will be set back if schools cannot collect and gain insights about students’ academic needs through robust amounts of data.

While the Electronic Frontier Foundation alleges that Google’s practices give it access to sensitive student information that is then used for non-educational purposes, notably, the nonprofit does not accuse the company of using the information for advertising purposes.

In a statement describing the complaint, the Electronic Frontier Foundation claims that Google promised the organization that “it will soon disable a setting on school Chromebooks that allows Chrome Sync data,” which the advocacy group says “is a small step in the right direction.”

Google declined to comment to EdWeek on whether they would be changing the Chromebooks default settings on Chromebooks sold to schools.

However, on Wednesday, the company issued a blog post contending that its products “comply with both the law and our promises, including the Student Privacy Pledge.”

According to the statement, personal information collected from the Chromebooks “is only used to power features in Chrome for that person,” meaning individual users. That feature is indispensable to allowing students access to personal accounts from multiple devices at home and at school, the company argues.

In fact, according to Google, much of the product’s soaring popularity is attributable to the sync feature, as it allows students to access personalized accounts on the same device (at different times) in districts that cannot afford to go one to one.

The company also claims that bulk data is only used in aggregate “after completely removing information about individual users” to generally improve the services they provide. This means that the data the company sees is “not connected to any specific person nor is it used to analyze student behaviors.” According to the company, no student data is ever used for advertising purposes.

Furthermore, Google says it gives all students, teachers, and school officials the power to disable or modify sync settings to further protect student privacy.

In 2012, Google settled on a $22.5 million fine to the Federal Trade Commission over charges that the company misrepresented to users of Apple Inc.'s Safari Web browser that it would not place tracking “cookies” or present targeted ads to those users. That practice, the agency said, violated an earlier privacy settlement between the company and the FTC.

The executive director of the Future of Privacy Forum, Jules Polonetsky, who heads the nonprofit that advocates for responsible data use and co-authored the Student Privacy Pledge, issued a statement this week saying it did not believe the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s complaint had merit.

In the statement Polonetsky, speaking for his organization, pointed to some of the safeguards that Google says it has in place as policies in keeping with the pledge. “We don’t believe the complaint raises any issues about data use that are restricted by the Student Privacy Pledge.”

According to its’ website, the Future of Privacy Forum receives financial support from numerous foundations and industry sponsors, including Google.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.