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Google accused of spying on students in FTC privacy complaint

US privacy campaigner the Electronic Frontier Foundation has accused Google of spying on students and logged a complaint with US regulator the Federal Trade Commission.

The EFF says that Google tracks and mines records of every site, search, result and video that students watch without obtaining permission from students or their parents.

EFF staff attorney Nate Cardozo said: “Despite publicly promising not to, Google mines students’ browsing data and other information, and uses it for the company’s own purposes. Minors shouldn’t be tracked or used as guinea pigs, with their data treated as a profit centre.”

The complaint is backed by EFF’s “Spying on Students” campaign, following research into the privacy risks of using electronic devices and services.

Google provides a suite of tools for schools and higher education that mirror those available to businesses and consumers, allowing them to offload some of the IT infrastructure to a paid-for cloud-based service.

A Google spokesperson 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.”

Cardozo said: “If Google wants to use students’ data to ‘improve Google products,’ then it needs to get express consent from parents. Making such promises and failing to live up to them is a violation of FTC rules against unfair and deceptive business practices.”

Google’s Chromebooks, which run a stripped-down operating system based around the company’s Chrome browser and as such have very low system requirements, have found success in education where they can be bought for significantly lower cost than most other computers.

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They are also based on cloud-system, allowing multiple users to log into one machine, with their data backed up to a central online store, making managing users and machines easier than some other alternatives.

But Chromebooks and Google’s Apps for Education suite have come under fire before for potential privacy violations.

EFF staff attorney Sophia Cope said: “Devices and cloud services used in schools must, without compromise or loopholes, protect student privacy.

“We are calling on the FTC to investigate Google’s conduct, stop the company from using student personal information for its own purposes, and order the company to destroy all information it has collected that’s not for educational purposes.”

Google is understood to be in the process of disabling some of the features the form part of the EFF’s complaint, including Google’s Chrome Sync for Chromebooks that records browsing behaviour.


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