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Clever helps 44,000 schools share student data with tech firms. What comes next?

Education

Google student privacy complaint isn’t so black and white.

Last month, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) filed a complaint against Google with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), arguing that the company violated a public commitment to protect students’ privacy. The complaint claims, among other things, that Google collects and uses students’ personal information in ways that exceed the “authorized educational purposes” outlined by the Student Privacy Pledge that Google and other firms signed in 2015.

“Minors shouldn’t be tracked or used as guinea pigs, with their data treated as a profit center,” wrote EFF Staff Attorney Nate Cardozo, unveiling the complaint as part of the EFF’s Spying on Students campaign. The complaint was widely covered by news outlets, and triggered anxious meetings at schools using Google’s services.

There’s no question that student privacy is important. But in my view, the EFF condemns practices that are likely consistent with the Student Privacy Pledge and, more importantly, with the interests of many students and teachers.

The EFF’s complaint makes two main observations:

  1. Google’s laptops (Chromebooks) come configured to store students’ passwords, browsing history, and settings on the company’s servers. Google uses this data to allow students to easily switch between laptops and keep their settings. It also uses this data, after removing information that identifies individuals, to improve its services. (Google offers the following example: “if data shows that millions of people are visiting a webpage that is broken, that site would be moved lower in the search results.”) Google says it does not use this data to target ads to students.

  2. Google treats student data differently when students use the “core services” that it markets to schools — such as email and word processing — than when students use other Google services — such as web search and YouTube — which are not specifically marketed to schools. Today, Google has stricter rules for “core services” than it does for “additional services” (which schools can choose to disable). For example, if a school chooses to allow students to access YouTube, Google can collect and use data about individual students’ YouTube activities. In response to the EFF’s complaint, Google now explains that it is “committed to ensuring” that students’ personal information is not used to target ads, even when students use “additional services.” That’s an encouraging remark, although it leaves open the possibility that this restriction may not yet be fully implemented.

The EFF believes that both of these practices violate the Student Privacy Pledge, and has asked the FTC to compel Google to delete the student data it has gathered in these contexts.

Google and the authors of the Student Privacy Pledge disagree.

Google can, and should, be clearer about how it treats student data, especially when students venture outside the company’s core educational services. The EFF rightly observes that more permissive rules apply when a student uses additional services to “create a report on current events [using Google News], or researches history using Google Books, or has a geography lesson using Google Maps, or watches a science video on YouTube …” In these instances, Google should consider stronger policies. (Google’s recent claim that it is “committed to ensuring that K-12 student personal information is not used to target ads” across its services is a step in the right direction.)

However, I’m not convinced that Google should be compelled to make major changes to its data collection practices. In many cases, Google’s stewardship of student data allows the company to offer practical and valuable features. For example, Google Sync allows students to easily move between computers at school, taking their workspaces and passwords with them. (“That’s one of the reasons Chromebooks have become so popular in classrooms, especially for schools that can’t afford a device for every child,” writes the Director of Google Apps for Education, Jonathan Rochelle.) YouTube allows students to subscribe to their favorite video channels. And Google Search lets students review search queries from prior research.

In short, while Google should consider stronger policies and continue to improve its transparency, the company’s current educational offerings do not, in my view, warrant alarm.

We should remain alert about student privacy. Advocates of all stripes have identified pressing challenges on the horizon: How are schools using all their new data? Will this data, even when under the strict control of schools, exacerbate disparities in discipline and grading? Will students be pressured to transfer their school data to others upon graduation?

In the meantime, students should have the opportunity to use flexible and practical cloud-based tools, including Google’s.

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