Google Denies That It Collects, Tracks Student Data

The Electronic Frontier Foundation filed a complaint with the FTC accusing Google of deceptively collecting data on school children. Google denies EFF's claims.

Google denies student tracking claims

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) has accused Google of deceptively collecting and mining personal data of school children, a claim that Google vigorously denied Dec. 2.

In a complaint filed with the U.S. Federal Trade Commission this week, the EFF said Google collects, stores and analyzes data on the Internet sites that students visit, the search terms they use, the results they click on, the videos their watch and their passwords.

None of this data collection is done with either the consent of the students or their parents, the rights advocacy group said.

"Google's practices fly in the face of commitments made when it signed the Student Privacy Pledge," the EFF said, referring to an initiative by the Future of Privacy Forum (FPF) and the Software & Information Industry Association (SIIA) to protect student data.

The more than 200 companies that have signed the legally-enforceable document have committed not to collect, use or share personal information on students—unless it is needed for a legitimate education purpose or parental consent is given.

According to the EFF, Google does not appear to be using student data for advertising purposes, but the Sync feature on Google's Chrome browser is enabled by default on the Chromebooks the company sells to schools. This lets Google track and monitor what students do when they are online, the EFF said.

Google has committed to disable the Chrome Sync data setting on Chromebooks sold to schools to prevent the devices from sharing browsing history data with other services, the EFF said. Even so, its collecting of student data, despite publicly promising not to, violates FTC rules pertaining to deceptive and unfair trade practices, the EFF said.

"Minors shouldn't be tracked or used as guinea pigs, with their data treated as a profit center," the EFF said. "If Google wants to use students' data to 'improve Google products,' then it needs to get express consent from parents."

The EFF said it has asked the FTC to investigate Google's conduct and get the company to destroy all the data it has collected without consent on school children.

Jonathan Rochelle, director of Google Apps for Education, said the company remains confident that its tools comply with both its student privacy pledge and the law.

According to Rochelle, personally identifiable data gathered via the Chrome Sync feature is used purely to customize features for that particular student. For example, he pointed to how the data is used to give students access to their own browsing data and settings securely and across devices.

"Chrome Sync enables Google Account holders to log in to any Chromebook or Chrome browser and find all their apps, extensions, bookmarks and frequently visited Web pages," Rochelle said in a blog published Dec. 2.

This allows students to get to their work right away and is one of the reasons Chromebook has become so popular in schools, he claimed.

Any student-specific data in apps like Gmail, Calendar, Drive, Sheets and Hangouts is only used to provide the services themselves so as to enable students to communicate and collaborate, Rochelle said. "There are no ads in these Core Services, and student data in these services is not used for advertising purposes."

Jaikumar Vijayan

Jaikumar Vijayan

Vijayan is an award-winning independent journalist and tech content creation specialist covering data security and privacy, business intelligence, big data and data analytics.