The Electronic Frontier Foundation filed a recent complaint with the Federal Trade Commission requesting that the agency investigate whether Google is deceptively collecting and mining the personal information of students, including children as young as seven years old.
As part of its Spying on Students campaign, the group took a look into Google's public education project. Google for Education provides inexpensive laptops (Chromebooks) to schools, which allow access to a free suite of web-based education apps for students and classroom management tools for teachers known as Google Apps for Education.
In January 2015, Google signed on to the K-12 School Service Provider Pledge to Safeguard Student Privacy. Specifically, Google promised not to "collect, maintain, use or share student personal information beyond that needed for authorized educational/school purposes," not to build a personal profile of a student other than to support authorized education or school purposes, and not to knowingly retain student personal information beyond the time period required to support the authorized school or educational purposes.
According to the EFF, Google allegedly broke these promises.
When students log in to their Google for Education accounts, personal data about their non-educational Google services is collected, maintained, and used by Google, the group said. The company uses the "highly personal information" for its own purposes to improve Google products and to serve targeted advertising, EFF alleged.
In addition, Chromebook laptops' default setting is such that Google can track the students' entire browsing history and other data (not just while users are browsing within Google-owned or operated sites as part of the education apps). In addition, the company also permits school administrators to choose settings that share student personal information with Google and third-party websites, and they can override the settings selected by a child's parent to turn off browser tracking.
Google acknowledged that it collects and uses student data for the purpose of improving its products but that the data is aggregated and anonymized. "But because students use their computers and access the Internet for non-academic reasons, Google invariably collects, maintains, and uses for its own benefit" student information in violation of the Student Privacy Pledge, the EFF said.
"In light of the Pledge, Google's unauthorized collection, maintenance, use and sharing of student personal information beyond what is needed for education, constitutes unfair or deceptive acts or practices in violation of Section 5 of the Federal Trade Commission Act," the EFF charged. It requested that the agency investigate Google's practices and order the destruction of all student data and a halt on future collection and sharing.
To read the Electronic Frontier Foundation's complaint to the FTC, click here.
Why it matters: EFF argued that violations of the Student Privacy Pledge are akin to companies falsely stating they are certified members of the U.S.-EU Safe Harbor Framework, a deception that triggered multiple FTC enforcement actions. The group cited several other allegedly false privacy promises that resulted in an administrative complaint against Snapchat and the Nomi Technologies' settlement over its failure to abide by its statements that consumers could opt out of its mobile device tracking program. Whether the FTC acts on EFF's complaint remains to be seen.