Google is spying on K-12 students, privacy advocates warn

A person prepares to search the Internet using Google.

Philippe Huguen/AFP/Getty Images

Technology giant Google is known for its popular search engine, software, and longtime motto: “Don’t be evil.” But is it also one of the Internet’s biggest snoops?

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), a non-profit privacy watchdog organization, filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission this month accusing Google, a leading provider of education technology software in schools across the U.S., of collecting and data-mining children’s Internet searches.

The privacy group said that the “Sync” feature on the Google Chrome Web Browser is enabled by default on Chromebooks widely sold to schools, which allows Google to track, store and data-mine (for non-advertising purposes) records of all the Internet sites a student visits, search terms used, results clicked on, videos watched on YouTube, and passwords saved.

The complaint also alleges that the Google Apps for Education service (GAFE) violates the Student Privacy Pledge, a document signed by more than 200 technology companies including Google, Apple Inc. and Microsoft Corp., wherein they promise to refrain from collecting, using or sharing students’ personal data except when needed for authorized educational purposes.

EFF says that it uncovered the practice while conducting research for its ”Spying on Students” campaign, which was created to educate parents and school administrators about the privacy risks of school-supplied electronic devices and software.

“Despite publicly promising not to, Google mines students’ browsing data and other information, and uses it for the company’s own purposes,” EFF Staff Attorney Nate Cardozo said in a statement. “Making such promises and failing to live up to them is a violation of FTC rules against unfair and deceptive business practices. 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.”

Moreover, the group claims, “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.”

In response to the complaint, Jonathan Rochelle, Director of Google Apps for Education, wrote in a blog post: “While we appreciate the EFF’s focus on student data privacy, we are confident that our tools comply with both the law and our promises.”

Rochelle stated that students’ personal data in GAFE accounts is only used so students can communicate with one another through email and collaborate on assignments using Google Docs. “Sync” data is only used to help Google enhance their services, he said.

“Schools can control whether students or teachers can use additional Google consumer services -- like YouTube, Maps, and Blogger -- with their GAFE accounts,” Rochelle writes in the blog post. “We are committed to ensuring that K-12 student personal information is not used to target ads in these services, and in some cases we show no ads at all. In Google Search, for example, we show no ads when students are logged in.”

Google has become the largest provider of laptops and tablets to U.S. schools in recent years, the Washington Post reports, largely because of their lower cost.