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Data

Google Amends Terms for Scanning User Data

By Benjamin Herold — April 22, 2014 2 min read
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In the wake of an ongoing federal lawsuit and growing public scrutiny over how Google scans and mines the data of its users, including students, the giant online-services provider has amended its terms of service and privacy policies.

The new terms of service, which went into effect last week, specify that the Mountain View, Calif.-based company analyzes private data, including emails sent and received using its popular Gmail service, for a variety of purposes, including delivery of targeted ads.

“We want our policies to be simple and easy for users to understand,” Google spokesman Matt Kallman wrote in a statement, according to the Bloomberg news organization.

One prominent privacy advocate, however, was unimpressed.

“Google’s amended terms of service should remove any possible remaining doubt concerning [the company’s] lack of commitment to student privacy,” said Khaliah Barnes, a lawyer with the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a Washington-based advocacy group.

A group of nine plaintiffs is suing Google, alleging that such data-mining amounts to a violation of federal and state wiretap and privacy laws. At the heart of the issue is the plaintiffs’ contention that Google, without users’ consent, “intercepts” and scans emails in transit, before they reach the company’s servers or a user’s inbox. The new terms of service are more explicit in acknowledging that practice.

Last month, Judge Lucy A. Koh of the U.S. District Court in San Jose, Calif., denied a motion to grant the plaintiffs class certification, a major victory for Google.

Two of the plaintiffs in the California lawsuit are university-student users of the company’s free Google Apps for Education service. The students allege that their emails were inappropriately scanned by the company, and that the results were used to build “surreptitious user profiles” that could be used for a variety of purposes, including targeted advertising.

Indexing Student Emails

Before Google amended its terms of service and privacy policies, a spokeswoman confirmed to Education Week that the company does “scan and index” the email messages of students using Apps for Education. But the company does not target ads to students, she said.

The same Google spokeswoman also confirmed to Education Week that its general terms of service and privacy policy apply to student users of Apps for Education, a stance contrary to the company’s earlier public statements.

An estimated 30 million people worldwide use Apps for Education, according to the company.

Google also made minor modifications to its privacy policy earlier this month.

A version of this article appeared in the April 23, 2014 edition of Education Week as Google Amends Terms for Scanning User Data

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