[PRIVACY] Is Google Spying On Students?

Category: Education , Privacy

Educational technology, or “ed tech,” has taken over American classrooms as thoroughly as Burmese pythons have taken over the Florida Everglades. With the overwhelming invasion of laptops, Chromebooks, cloud-based and desktop apps has come a host of new concerns about student privacy and just what early exposure to technology does to kids.

Data Collection Is Expanding in Schools

In public and private schools, ed tech companies are collecting personal data such as kids’ names, birth dates, browsing histories, location data, and more, often without the knowledge and consent of parents, or even of school administrators, according to a new report from the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF).

EFF’s report, “Spying on Students: School-Issued Devices and Student Privacy,” comes from online surveys and face-to-face interviews with over 1,000 parents, teachers, school IT managers, and other stakeholders. It reveals a disturbing lack of meaningful privacy protections for students, and schools’ resistance to letting students opt out of school-provided ed tech.

EFF identified 152 different ed tech apps through its surveys. Only 118 had published privacy policies. Very few of those privacy policies went into important details such as data retention, encryption, de-identification, and aggregation.

Tech Spying on Kids?

Perhaps most disturbing, ed tech is teaching children as young as five to hand over their personal information on demand. It’s not uncommon for a student to have multiple ed tech online accounts, each including a “teachable moment” when it requires personal information.

Google seems to dominate the classrooms of EFF’s survey sample, although ed tech firms Pearson and McGraw-Hill are also mentioned by participants. “One-third of all K-12 students in U.S. schools use school-issued devices. Google Chromebooks account for about half of those machines. Across the U.S., more than 30 million students, teachers, and administrators use Google’s G Suite for Education (formerly known as Google Apps for Education), and that number is rapidly growing.”

"You Can Check Out Any Time You Like..."

Help to spread the word. Even if you have no kids in school, please forward this article to anyone you know that has school-age children. As adults, our privacy may be history, but it doesn't have to be so for the younger generation starting out with technology. Share a link by email, or post on Facebook - thanks!

In December 2015, EFF filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission concerning Google’s G Suite for Education. The main allegation was that Google was tracking students and building advertising profiles when they used Google apps that were outside of Google Apps for Education (now G Suite). About a year later, Google changed its privacy policy to assure everyone that it does not use any data collected on K-12 students to target ads on non-G Suite Google properties. But Google still collects data on students and associates it with their G Suite accounts, perhaps to target ads within G Suite.

Parents expressed great frustration to EFF surveyors when discussing efforts to get information from schools. Several parents said their students were issued devices and signed up for online accounts without their knowledge or consent.

Opting out of ed tech is made difficult deliberately, in many school systems. Exceptions to rules are always discouraged in schools, but the hurdles that parents report seem especially absurd. For instance, many schools have an “all or nothing” privacy policy that is simple for schools to administer, but can result in a child’s picture being dropped from the yearbook if the child’s parents opt out of ed tech.

On the other hand, EFF gives the example of a rural, heavily Amish school district in Indiana. “The schools provide students and their parents with a “menu” of options for opting out. In addition to FERPA-compliant options for whether or not students’ names and pictures can appear in the school directory, yearbook, website, etc., families can separately choose whether or not they want their student to use technology in the classroom.”

Student privacy matters too. Parents should ask probing questions, discussed in Part 3 of EFF’s report, to understand what data is collected about their kids and get control of it. What technology is being used? Is there a privacy policy available? What data is being collected, how is it protected, and is it being used outside the school? If clear answers are not available, contact your local PTA, school board, or newspaper.

We haven't even touched on the issue of how much screen time is too much for younger kids, how early access to computers affects learning and cognitive abilities, or the health effects of smartphones, tablets and laptops on children. Do a little searching on your own, and let me know what you think.

Your thoughts on this topic are welcome. Post your comment or question below...

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Most recent comments on "[PRIVACY] Is Google Spying On Students?"

Posted by:

Bob k
20 Apr 2017

Oh, I think the privacy/spying thing has gotten completely out of control. I am really concerned by the flood of advertisements I get after I casually click on something a search engine suggests to me.

I have been using Tor more and more to avoid this nonsense.

The other day in an attempt to set up a TuneIn account, I had to agree to their replacing my home page and default search engine to one of their choosing. No way! What a blatant attempt to track everything everything I do, without most really understanding it.

I hate to ask for more government involvement, but there has to be some line drawn, not only to protect students, but everyone.

Posted by:

20 Apr 2017

"I hate to ask for more government involvement, but there has to be some line drawn, not only to protect students, but everyone."

Unfortunately, the government does its own data collection, and it's perfectly happy for information to be gathered by others, as long as the government can get access to it. Orwell was just a couple decades early.

Posted by:

Doug at STOP
20 Apr 2017

Bob, thanks for this informative, and alarming, article.

I get it, using "free" apps usually implies a quid-pro-quo transaction: you use my app, I collect your metadata so I can sell you stuff. Fair enough, that is, if the user is made fully aware of these terms.

How can we expect a first-grader to understand this? Or even his/her parents if they haven't been informed about metadata collection? That's the part of the deal that bugs me. It's predatory. And the "all-or-nothing" approach is just not acceptable.

Posted by:

20 Apr 2017

Last year (3rd grade), my daughter was signed up for Google Classroom and Khan Academy accounts in school; this year, they have added a Newsela account. I didn't find out about any of these until after-the-fact. I don't actually mind her having these - it is nice to coordinate her home-learning with her classroom learning in this way - but I was bothered by the fact that I wasn't even informed - much less required to give consent - for her to be signed up for these. In addition to privacy concerns, they have provided her with predictable, easy-to-remember passwords for these accounts - if our children are going to be exploring the internet at this age, the basics of online security need to be taught as well.

Posted by:

Jim Swan
21 Apr 2017

Are you aware of the advertising spots that accompany your posts?

Do you have any control over them, or are they out of your hands?

Are they the same ads for everybody, or are they targeted to specific users? (I presume the latter, because I see an ad for MacKeeper and also Japanese language ads, due no doubt to my address.) MacKeeper is a program which is roundly denounced by Mac loyalists as being essentially malware promoted as protection. Do you really want this kind of advertisement showing up on your otherwise excellent site?

Posted by:

21 Apr 2017

"...but you can never leave."

Love the Hotel California reference, Bob.

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