Google products are growing as ubiquitous in classrooms as dry-erase markers. The most recent numbers show that more than half of classroom computers purchased for U.S. schools are low-cost Chromebooks. And 50 million students, teachers and administrators use Google Apps For Education, a group of tools that includes Gmail, Google Calendar, Google Docs and the purpose-built Google Classroom.
This software is free to use, for the most part. But a nonprofit advocacy group called the Electronic Frontier Foundation says there is a hidden cost: data mining that potentially compromises students' privacy.
EFF has filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission, charging that Google is in violation of a legally binding agreement signed by 200 companies called the Student Privacy Pledge.
Understanding the substance of this complaint requires learning a little more about how Web services work: When you or I are logged in to Google, whether we're using Search, Maps or Gmail, one account is following us around — sometimes even in the physical world — collecting information. Google uses this information to better target ads and search results and to improve its services for you and for other users. Maybe you've seen a restaurant where you have an upcoming dinner reservation pop up on Google Maps, or had an appointment from your email spontaneously show up on your calendar, giving a hint of how the services talk to each other. When you're logged in and using Chrome, its Web browser, Google can collect even more info: your entire browsing history, with permission.
For students, though, the rules are supposed to be different. When students are using the Core Services within Google Apps for Education, Google doesn't collect personal data to target ads, it says. In fact, the company stopped doing it last year after a California lawsuit questioned the practice.
The EFF's complaint, however, pertains to non-core services: sites like Blogger, Photos, Maps and YouTube. EFF says that when students are logged in to their Google accounts, which are associated with their real names and schools, Google is collecting their data to improve its products. And when students are on Chromebooks using Chrome, Google might be able to see their whole browsing history.
EFF isn't necessarily asking Google to stop collecting this information. It wants the company to ask permission from students and parents. "It's our contention that the Student Privacy Pledge promised to seek authorization," says EFF staff attorney Nate Cardozo. "All we're saying is that Google promised to ask first and they failed to do so."
A Google spokesman pointed NPR Ed to this blog post as the company's only comment on the record. It reads in part, "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."
"I think Google is not being as transparent as they could be," says Elana Zeide, a student privacy expert who is a research fellow at NYU's Information Law Institute. The real issue, she says, is in that 50 million number of users of Google tools. Increasingly, commercial technologies are an integral part of public education, and the law hasn't really caught up. "Children must go to school," she says. "They must use the technology. No parent wants to put the child at a disadvantage by having them opt out."
EFF made the complaint as part of a broader campaign called "Spying on Students." It is working to strengthen student privacy bills currently under consideration in California and in the U.S. House of Representatives.