Digital rights group the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) has filed a complaint with the United States Federal Trade Commission (FTC) that accuses Google of collecting information about schoolchildren’s browsing habits, despite the company signing a pledge saying it was committed to their privacy.
The EFF says it discovered that Google’s Chromebooks – which it sells at a low price through its education program – along with its Apps for Education, are collecting students’ data and tracking their internet browsing activity for non-advertising purposes. The EEF says Google does this without permission from the students or their parents.
“Despite publicly promising not to, Google mines students’ browsing data and other information, and uses it for the company’s own purposes," the EFF said. “Google’s practices fly in the face of commitments made when it signed the Student Privacy Pledge, a legally enforceable document whereby companies promise to refrain from collecting, using, or sharing students’ personal information except when needed for legitimate educational purposes or if parents provide permission.”
The 2004 Student Privacy Pledge makes it clear that school service providers will not, among other things, sell student information, use behaviorally targeted advertising, and use data for anything other than for educational purposes. The pledge also enforces strict limits on data retention and requires providers to be transparent about the collection and use of data. It was signed by 200 companies, including Google, Apple, and Microsoft.
The EFF says Google is recording everything students do when they’re logged into their Google accounts, including search histories (regardless of what browser is used), the search results students click on, and the even what videos they watch on YouTube.
The complaint stemmed from the EFF noticing that Google’s ‘Sync’ feature on its Chromebooks is enabled by default and that this allowed the company track, store and data mine student’s browsing information. When the EFF contacted Google about the matter, the tech giant said it would soon “disable a setting on school Chromebooks that allows Chrome Sync data […] to be shared with other Google services.” But the advocacy group believes this isn’t enough, which led to the complaint being filed with the FTC.
"While that is a small step in the right direction, it doesn’t go nearly far enough to correct the violations of the Student Privacy Pledge currently inherent in Chromebooks being distributed to schools," the EFF said.
Last month, Google announced that its Google Apps for Education suite is being used by 50 million students, teachers and administrators around the world and that Chromebooks are "the best-selling device in U.S. K-12 schools.”
Google declined to comment specifically on the EFF complaint but said: “Our services enable students everywhere to learn and keep their information private and secure. While we appreciate EFF's focus on student privacy, we are confident that these tools comply with both the law and our promises, including the Student Privacy Pledge."