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Google Accused of Spying on Students Using Chromebooks

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Google is under fire for collecting and data mining school children’s personal information, according to a complaint filed with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) by the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), a nonprofit advocacy group.

“Google violated a legally binding agreement signed by 200 companies known as the Student Privacy Pledge, as well as regulations enforced by the FTC, by secretly collecting student’s personal browsing information without student or parental permission.”

Recent numbers show more than half of classroom computers purchased for U.S. schools are low-cost Chromebooks. And, 50 million administrators, teachers and students use Google Apps for education including Google Docs, Maps and Gmail, etc.

EFF found that Google’s “Sync” feature for the Chrome browser is enabled by default on Chromebooks sold to schools across the country which allows Google to store, track and data mine records of every Internet site that the students visit, every term they search, as well as all the links and videos they click on.

What exactly is Google Accused of Doing?

Google is alleged of violating the Student Privacy Pledge in three ways.  First, when students are logged in to their Google for Education accounts, student personal information in the form of data about their use of non-educational Google services is collected, maintained, and used by Google for its own benefit, unrelated to authorized educational or school purposes. Second, the “Chrome Sync” feature of Google’s Chrome browser is turned on by default on all Google Chromebook laptops – including those sold to schools as part of Google for Education – thereby enabling Google to collect and use students’ entire browsing history and other data for its own benefit, unrelated to authorized educational or school purposes. And third, Google for Education’s Administrative settings, which enable a school administrator to control settings for all program Chromebooks, allow administrators to choose settings that share student personal information with Google and third-party websites in violation of the Student Privacy Pledge.  In light of the Pledge, EFF alleges that Google’s unauthorized collection, maintenance, use and sharing of student personal information beyond what is needed for education, constitutes unfair or deceptive acts or practices in violation of Section 5 of the Federal Trade Commission Act (15 U.S.C. § 45).

Google maintains that, when students use the Core Services within Google Apps for Education, the company doesn’t collect personal data to target ads and that the company stopped doing so last year after the practice was called into question in a California lawsuit.

The EFF’s complaint, however, relates to non-core service browsing history and behavior on every single Google operated site such as YouTube, Blogger and the like.   According to the EFF’s complaint, “When students are logged into their Google accounts, which are associated with their schools and real names, Google is collecting their data to improve its products. As such, when students are on their Chromebooks using Chrome, Google might be able to see their browsing history in its entirety.”

“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.”

If your child attends a school that requires using a Google Chromebook, and you are concerned that he or she may have been affected by this incident, Sheller, P.C. is investigating the situation and is here to help.  Call 800-883-2299 for a no obligation consultation.

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