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Google is tracking students as it sells more products to schools, privacy advocates warn

Andrea Peterson

By Andrea Peterson

Published Dec. 29, 2015

Google is tracking students as it sells more products to schools, privacy advocates warn

In public classrooms across the country, the corporate name that is fast becoming as common as pencils and erasers is Google.

More than half of K-12 laptops or tablets purchased by U.S. schools in the third quarter were Chromebooks, cheap laptops that run Google software. Beyond its famed Web search, the company freely offers word processing and other software to schools. In total, Google programs are used by more than 50 million students and teachers around the world, the company says.

But Google is also tracking what those students are doing on its services and using some of that information to sell targeted ads, according to a complaint filed with federal officials by a leading privacy advocacy group.

And because of the arrangement between Google and many public schools, parents often can't keep the company from collecting their children's data, privacy experts say.

"In some of the schools we've talked to parents about, there's literally no ability to say, 'no,'" said Nate Cardozo, a staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

Google, whose parent company is called Alphabet, pushed back against the criticism, saying its education apps comply with the law. But it acknowledged it collects data about some student activities to improve its products.

"We have always been firmly committed to keeping student information private and secure," Jonathan Rochelle, director of Google Apps for Education, or GAFE, wrote in a blog post defending its practices. Google declined to comment further.

But privacy advocates warn that many school administrators may not realize just how much information Google is collecting or how it may be used beyond providing educational services. And for some parents, the arrangement is concerning.

Jeff, who spoke on the condition that his last name not be published to protect his family's privacy, lives in a Roseville, California, school district that requires students to use Google's education products. He said he has struggled to keep his 4th grade daughter out of Google's system.

"Google's primary source of income is collecting data on people," he said. "And we didn't like the idea of that being in our school system."

In just a few short years, Google has become a dominant force as a provider of education technology. In 2012, Chromebooks made up less than 1 percent of all laptops and tablets shipped to K-12 schools in the United States, while Apple supplied more than half of all sales, according to Futuresource Consulting. The firm's latest data shows that Chromebooks accounted for 51 percent of those device sales in the third quarter of this year, while Apple captured 24 percent and Microsoft 23 percent.

Google's fast rise has partly been because of low costs: Chromebooks can often be bought in the $100 to $200 range, a fraction of the price for a MacBook. And its software is free to schools.

As its products were taking off in classrooms, Google earlier this year signed onto an industry-led student privacy pledge where it promised to limit how it collects and uses information about students.

But in a filing with the Federal Trade Commission, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) argued Google is tracking nearly everything students are doing when they are signed into their Google accounts and, in some cases, using that information to build profiles and serve them targeted ads in certain Google programs.

Google only considers some services parts of its education suite -- such as Gmail, Calendar, Google Docs -- but not others such as Search, Maps, YouTube and Google News. So if students are logged into their educational account and use Google News to find stories for a report or watches a history video on YouTube, Google can use that activity to build a profile about them and serve them advertisements outside its educational products, EFF alleges.

The EFF also says that a feature automatically turned on in Chromebooks -- including those sold to schools -- runs afoul of Google's privacy pledge. The feature, dubbed Chrome Sync, lets Google users port their browsing history, passwords and other personalized features between any Chromebook or Chrome browser that they log into. The EFF protested Google's effort to track that activity and use it for commercial purposes without parental consent.

Google wrote in a blog post that the decision to allow students to use Chrome Sync or use apps beyond its core education suite is up to school districts. The data collected through Chrome Sync is only used in the aggregate to improve its products and all identities are scrubbed, the company's blog post said.

The authors of the student privacy pledge, an industry-backed think tank called the Future of Privacy Forum, also came to Google's defense -- saying that the EFF's accusations went too far.

"We have reviewed the EFF complaint but do not believe it has merit," Jules Polonetsky, the executive director of the Future of Privacy Forum, said in a statement.

But privacy advocates say the complaint should be a wake up call not just to Google, but to other companies handling student data.

"There are so many different apps and providers -- and overwhelmingly students are not getting the kind of security and privacy protection they deserve," said Khaliah Barnes, an associate director at the Electronic Privacy Information Center.

And thanks to a 1970's-era student privacy law, school districts don't need parents' written consent to share information about students with the companies they contract with, privacy advocates said.

Many school districts simply leave parents "in the dark" about who is tracking their children's activities in school, said Barnes.

A 2013 study examining a national sample of public school districts found that 95 percent of them relied on some sort of online cloud service. But only a quarter of those districts informed parents about their use of such systems and one in five lacked policies governing the use of online services.

Fewer than a quarter of service agreements spelled out why the school district was disclosing student information to a vendor and less than 7 percent restricted vendors from selling or marketing data about students, according to the study.

"I think officials in most school districts in the U.S. are completely ignorant about the information they are giving out about their kids," said Joel Reidenberg, a Fordham University law professor and one of the authors of the study.

In the Washington suburbs, Alexandria (Virginia) City public schools have been using some Google education programs since 2013. This year, the school district switched to Chromebooks for high school students and is piloting them for 4th and 5th graders.

The district does not require parents' explicit consent for the Chromebook program, except when elementary school students take the devices home, said chief technology officer Elizabeth Hoover. Since the EFF's complaint, she has heard from one parent who raised privacy concerns and says the district will try to work with families who are uncomfortable with it.

But, she stressed, the district had taken a number of steps to protect students' privacy. For instance, the district disabled the Chrome Sync feature before rolling the devices out. And they've limited the services that students can access from their school Google accounts to Google Drive, Gmail, and Maps, she said.

"Working with GAFE has its own set of challenges so we try to proceed cautiously," Hoover explained.

Pushes to beef up student privacy protections on the federal level have hardly gained traction. But in 2014, 28 student data privacy laws were signed into law across 20 states, according to the an analysis by the Data Quality Campaign. One of the toughest was a California law that bars school vendors from selling student data, using it to target advertisements, or building a profile about them for non-educational purposes.

Laura Assem, the chief technology officer at the Roseville City School District in California, said the school system is evaluating how the state law will impact their district and its vendors. "Unfortunately, technology advances faster than legislation, but you can't remove technology from education because it's an accelerator," she said.

This year, administrators turned down an offer from Jeff's family to provide a personal device for their daughter, Jeff said. According to an email Jeff shared with The Washington Post, Roseville City School District superintendent Derk Garcia said that the school system was "considering removing the opt out clause" for parents starting the next school year. It was only after Jeff sought counsel from EFF that his family was able to work out a solution, he said.

Garcia did not respond to a request verify the content of the email, but Assem said the school system is still considering its options. "The district is working with our legal team as well as meeting with (Jeff) to figure out a solution," she said. It's also working to improve its infrastructure to better support students who want to bring their own devices, Assem added.

But Jeff remains frustrated. "This is a decision my school district made about the privacy and security of my child -- and it felt like they didn't really understand the implications," he said.

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