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Complaint: Google Chromebooks rigged to spy on students

Craig Clough | December 2, 2015

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Google ChromebookA digital rights group in San Francisco has filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) against Google, accusing it of spying on students that use the company’s Chromebooks and Google Apps for Education (GAFE) software by collecting and data mining children’s personal information, including their Internet searches.

If true, the practice might violate the Student Privacy Pledge, an agreement that Google signed along with 200 other companies promising not to collect, use or share students’ personal information when not for direct educational purposes. It might potentially violate a new California law, Senate Bill 1177, that goes into effect on Jan. 1.

Google denied that it has done anything wrong.

LA Unified currently owns thousands of Google Chromebooks that are issued to students or used for online testing, and it also uses the GAFE program. Chromebooks are also one of the most widely used digital devices by school districts nationwide.

The complaint was filed by the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF).

“While Google does not use student data for targeted advertising within a subset of Google sites, EFF found that Google’s ‘Sync’ feature for the Chrome browser is enabled by default on Chromebooks sold to schools,” EFF said in a statement. “This allows Google to track, store on its servers, and data mine for non-advertising purposes, records of every Internet site students visit, every search term they use, the results they click on, videos they look for and watch on YouTube, and their saved passwords. Google doesn’t first obtain permission from students or their parents and since some schools require students to use Chromebooks, many parents are unable to prevent Google’s data collection.”

EFF said in a statement that Google pledged to disable a setting on school Chromebooks that allows Chrome Sync data to be shared with other Google services. EFF said the move was a “small step in the right direction” but “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 complaint also alleges that Google can track students who are logged into their Google account even when using non-Google devices, such as smartphones and iPads.

“We are confident that these tools comply with both the law and our promises, including the Student Privacy Pledge,” a Google spokesman wrote in an email to the Wall Street Journal.

The Journal also pointed out that in 2012, Google paid $22.5 million to settle an FTC complaint that it failed to live up to an advertising industry pledge by misrepresenting the way it tracked Web users.

“We commend schools for bringing technology into the classroom. Chromebooks and Google Apps for Education have enormous benefits for teaching and preparing students for the future. But devices and cloud services used in schools must, without compromise or loopholes, protect student privacy,” EFF Staff Attorney Sophia Cope said in a statement. “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.”

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