Sparks fly over Google student data collection

Privacy Advocate, the Electronic Frontier Foundation have called out Google for breaching an agreement the company signed declaring it would not collect the data of students who used Google products.

Over 200 companies signed the Student Privacy Pledge
Over 200 companies signed the Student Privacy Pledge

The  Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) has laid a large accusation at the feet of the search engine giant Google. The privacy advocate group claims Google has been collecting the data of students who use Google products, which could land them in legal hot water.

The Student Privacy Pledge, signed by Google as well as around 200 other companies including Microsoft, commits signatories to not collect, use or sell the data of the students who use their products as educational service providers.

But the EFF has said that's exactly what Google does. Through its “spying on students” campaign, which launched on the 1 December, EFF discovered the violation by examining  Google's Apps for Education as well as the Chromebooks that Google sells cheap to classrooms around the world. It was just last month that Google proudly announced that over 50 million people were using Google's ‘Apps for Education'.

But the EFF claims that company collects all the data from those schools that use its educational products. The group claims that a feature on the Google Chrome browser, automatically enabled on Chromebooks, collects the information of users automatically. 

EFF stated earlier this week: “This allows Google to track, store on its servers, and data mine for non-advertising purposes, records of every Internet site students visit, every search term they use, the results they click on, videos they look for and watch on YouTube, and their saved passwords.”  The EFF added that even though the data collected is not used for advertising,  Google doesn't get permission from students or parents to store that data.

“A number of parents have contacted us over the last year with concerns about their children's privacy, so we conducted an investigation,” Nate Cardozo, EFF's staff attorney, told SCMagazineUK.com. “We started by reading all the public documentation we could find on Google's site, but there wasn't much. We then began engaging directly with Google to get more information. One of the most striking problems is that it's nearly impossible to get a straight answer about what Google is doing with student data.”

The EFF claims that Silicon Valley's own boy could be faced with legal charges for the breach of such an agreement. The Student Privacy Pledge is, after all, legally binding. On this point, Cardozo elaborated: “By its own terms, the Pledge is intended to be enforced by the FTC under section 5 of the FTC Act.”

While private individuals can't sue, “The FTC on the other hand, is empowered to bring an enforcement action, which is what we've asked them to do here. Our hope is that the agency obtains an injunction to stop the collection that Google is doing here, and a consent decree to keep them from doing similar things in the future. That not only will solve the problem with Google, but it will set an example for other companies.”

Jonathan Rochelle, the director of Google Apps for Education, responded to the EFF's charges in a statement earlier this week. He said that Google was confident that they did not breach the terms of the student privacy pledge and cited the co-authors of the Pledge, The Future of Privacy Forum and The Software and Information Industry Association, as critical of EFF's claim. 

Rochelle added that “Students' personal data in these Core Services is only used to provide the services themselves, so students can do things like communicate using email and collaborate on assignments using Google Docs.”

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