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Google Amends Terms for Scanning User Data

By Michele Molnar — May 06, 2014 5 min read

Google’s announcement last week that it has halted the practice of scanning student Gmail accounts for any potential advertising purposes met with a mix of praise and some lingering concerns from industry groups, privacy advocates, and educators.

The company came under intense scrutiny over the past several months for its privacy practices, but now insists that it has addressed those concerns.

“Over the last six months, in particular, there’s been an increasing flow of feedback around concerns with student data and what happens with that,” said Bram Bout, the director of Google for Education, in a Google Air Hangout streaming Web conference May 1. A lawsuit filed against the company and a subsequent article in Education Week highlighting Google’s admission that it “scans and indexes” Gmail accounts elevated the issue, and the Mountain View, Calif.-based company received inquiries about its practices from parents, schools, and others as the news spread.

Now, there are “no ads in Google Education, period,” Mr. Bout said in the Web conference. “It’s no longer possible to serve ads going forward. We’ve eliminated the scanning that was still there … that could have been used for advertising purposes.”

However, schools are still advised by ed-tech experts to check privacy policies from companies that produce add-on software extensions to Google Docs or Sheets in the Google Apps for Education tool suite, which the company said is used for free by 30 million students, educators, and administrators.

Six weeks ago, Google acknowledged to Education Week that the giant online-services provider scanned contents of millions of student users’ email messages within Apps for Education.

The issue arose from a lawsuit working its way through federal court, in which accusations from plaintiffs charged Google with building “surreptitious” profiles of Apps for Education users that could result in advertising being targeted to them.

In a Google blog post, Mr. Bout described the additional steps that Google is taking to address the concerns, including permanently removing the “enable/disable” toggle for ads, so that administrators can no longer turn on ads in these services; and removing all scanning in Gmail for advertising purposes for Apps for Education users.

In bold type, the giant online-services provider added: “Google cannot collect or use student data in Apps for Education services for advertising purposes.”

Joel R. Reidenberg, a law professor at Fordham University and Princeton University, called Google’s measure “a positive step,” but he identified two “significant problems” with it: Google can change this policy at any time, and the scanning disclaimer is associated with advertising purposes only. “There may be other commercial uses that they are exploiting student data for,” he said, such as selling information to textbook publishers, or test-preparation services. (Google’s Apps for Education’s security/privacy policy is described on its website at google.com/edu/privacy.)

“Schools have to look at what happens to their data once they no longer want to use Google Apps for Education, too,” said Mr. Reidenberg, who worked on a study released in December about privacy issues associated with cloud computing in schools. “Is it completely deleted from the Google system, or does it stay in the cloud forever?”

While the service is free, he indicated that Google can make money by other means. “What’s the quid pro quo?,” said Mr. Reidenberg, who has had some of his recent work funded by Microsoft, the Redmond, Wash.-based computer and software corporation that has been competing with Google for business and challenging the younger company’s privacy policies and practices for years.

This move will “force schools to do what they’ve always done, which is to not turn on ads,” said Henry C. Thiele, the assistant superintendent for technology and learning for the 6,800-student Maine Township High School District 207 in Illinois. Whether ads were turned on or not, Google still scanned and indexed Gmail, but that will no longer be the case, according to the company.

“I don’t think parents or teachers thought that Google was doing what it was doing,” said Bradley S. Shear, a social-media and digital-privacy lawyer based in Bethesda, Md. He added that the move was a “good first step,” but that it took too long for the company to take that step.

Issues of Trust

Even so, Google’s announcement got two thumbs up from the ed-tech industry. “Google’s actions are another example of school service providers continuously evaluating and improving their products and practices to better meet user needs and expectations,” Mark Schneiderman, the senior director of education policy for the Washington-based Software & Information Industry Association, wrote in an email.

Moving forward, the sector will be challenged “to avoid over-corrections that do not necessarily enhance privacy but instead unintentionally inhibit the effective use of data to enable school operations, enhance products and services, and personalize and improve student learning,” he wrote.

Mr. Bout of Google acknowledged the importance of the company’s new position in his blog post by emphasizing that earning and keeping the trust of students, teachers, and administrators “drives our business forward. We know that trust is earned through protecting their privacy and providing the best security measures.”

The policy shift by Google comes after a lawsuit that started the firestorm of controversy. It is being heard by the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, and is set for trial in October. The plaintiffs allege that the data-mining practices behind Google’s Gmail electronic-messaging service violate federal and state wiretap and privacy laws.

“We are very pleased that a substantial portion of the relief sought by this litigation has been achieved,” said lawyer Sean F. Rommel, who with James C. Wyly of Wyly-Rommel PLLC in Texarkana, Texas, is representing two of the plaintiffs.

A version of this article appeared in the May 07, 2014 edition of Education Week as Google Ends Scanning of Student Emails for Ad Purposes

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