Update: Google has responded in additional detail about the EFF’s accusations and insists that it has done nothing to invade the privacy of students using its educational software.
Specifically responding to claims against its Chrome Sync service, Google’s Jonathan Rochelle clarified that the feature is designed to improve the user’s browsing experience and that aggregated anonymous data is compiled to improve its services, not to sell advertisements nor to analyse student behaviours. He also points out that users and administrators can adjust or completely opt out of Chome Sync.
Furthermore, the two authors behind the Student Privacy Pledge, which Google has been accused of violating, have both criticized EFF’s complaint and suggest that the group has misinterpreted the pledge.
“While we appreciate the EFF’s focus on student data privacy, we are confident that our tools comply with both the law and our promises,” – Jonathan Rochelle, director of Google Apps for Education
Even the EFF admits that the Sync service can be useful and it is beginning to look like the group has a deeper agenda against Google’s education platform. An EFF lawyer claims that “Google is creating this little army of loyal users” and that “kids are being conditioned to give up their personal data in order to go online.” The EFF wants greater transparency about the data that Google is collecting and how it uses it.
The FTC declined to comment on the complaint. Google’s full response can be found here.
Google’s efforts to provide cost effective Chromebooks and Google for Education services for schools and students may have backfired this week, as the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) has filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and is requesting an investigation.
The complaint alleges that Google for Education tracks information about student browsing habits without obtaining permission from students and parents. Although the EFF acknowledges that Google itself does not use any of this data for targeted advertising, it suggests that data is being used to improve other products.
More specifically, the group found that Google’s “Sync” feature for Chrome is enabled by default on Chromebooks that are sold to schools and this allows Google to track data ranging from every web site visited to site passwords. Furthermore, Google’s system management tools also allegedly allow administrators to transmit student data to third party websites and services.
“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,” – EFF staff attorney Sophia Cope
To complicate the matter, Google has signed up to the Student Privacy Pledge, a voluntary agreement that prevents the selling of student information or the use of their data for anything other than educational purposes. If Google has been allowing third parties to track location or other data, then it would have breached this agreement.
Google has already stated to the EFF that it will soon disable a setting for Chrome Sync on Chromebooks that are sold to schools, but the group also wants the FTC to see if the company has violated rules on deceptive business practises. Google has also responded by stating that it is confident that its tools comply with the law and its public promises, including the Student Privacy Pledge. We will have to see if the FTC is interested in taking this any further.