Google invading student privacy with Chromebooks: EFF

The EFF has lodged a complaint with the FTC, alleging that Google is mining student data without permission.
Written by Corinne Reichert, Contributor

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) has accused Google of using its Chromebooks to invade the privacy of students in a complaint filed with the United States Federal Trade Commission on Tuesday.

The EFF's complaint alleges that Google has enabled by default the "Sync" feature on its Chrome browser for Chromebooks sold to schools, which monitors and collects data on internet searches, websites visited, saved passwords, and videos viewed by US students using the laptops from kindergarten through to the 12th grade in order to improve its digital services.

Chromebook privacy settings are also unable to be changed by users, with only school administrators given the capability to do so.

According to the EFF, this violates a Student Privacy Pledge signed by Google in 2014, which it said is legally enforceable under the Federal Trade Commission Act.

"Google is violating the Student Privacy Pledge in three ways. First, when students are logged into 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," the privacy group alleged in its complaint.

"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."

The EFF unearthed the information during its Spying on Students campaign looking into privacy risks of school-supplied devices and software, which was launched on Tuesday.

"Despite publicly promising not to, Google mines students' browsing data and other information, and uses it for the company's own purposes. Making such promises and failing to live up to them is a violation of FTC rules against unfair and deceptive business practices," argued EFF staff attorney Nate Cardozo.

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

The EFF has since released a guide for parents and students on changing Chromebook settings to improve privacy, while Google has disputed the charges, saying it has not done anything wrong.

The newest complaint about Google's online monitoring follows the tech giant on Monday denying that it had made a deal with the Israeli government to assist in monitoring YouTube videos inciting attacks on Israelis.

According to a previous statement from the Foreign Ministry, Google executives met last week with Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely and agreed to institute a mechanism whereby they would jointly monitor online activity, including YouTube videos encouraging attacks on Israelis.

However, Google has since disputed that it made any such deal.

The meeting between Hotovely and Google's senior counsel for public policy, Juniper Downs, and YouTube chief executive Susan Wojcicki was just "one of many that we have with policymakers from different countries to explain our policies on controversial content, flagging, and removals", a Google spokesperson said on Monday.

"The Israeli Ministry for Foreign Affairs has corrected its original announcement, which, in error, suggested there had been an agreement with Google to establish a mechanism to monitor online materials," the spokesperson added.

The Foreign Ministry has since updated the statement on its website to reflect this, but ministry spokesperson Emmanuel Nahshon said the Israeli government remains "extremely grateful for the good relations with Google", suggesting that the two entities will still be working together to flag and remove "dangerous" material.

"Our common objective is to remove dangerous incitement to violence on social media," the government spokesperson said.

"We have full confidence in the Google teams dealing with this removal."

With AAP

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