Google Sued For Data-Mining: California Students Claim Violation Of Educational Privacy

 @ryanWneal
on March 18 2014 6:09 PM
The Google HQ
Google Headquarters Trey Ratcliff/Google +

It’s no secret that Google collects user data from its various services to sell advertising. That’s how Google is able to offer things like email for free.

What isn’t clear is if Google can or should be doing this with students’ educational data.

A lawsuit making its way through federal court in California accuses Google of scanning emails sent and received by students using Apps for Education, and using information in these emails to build profiles of the students and target them with advertising.

A group of nine plaintiffs represented by the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a Washington-based advocacy group, said these data-mining practices violate principles for student privacy, and could even violate federal and state wiretap laws. The group is hoping to make the case a class-action lawsuit for millions of dollars in compensation and make Google be more transparent of its data-collection practices.

Two of the plaintiffs, Robert Fread and Rafael Carillo, are students at universities that use Apps for Education.

The case could have major implications for how the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act is interpreted, according to Education Week.

More than 30 million people around the world use Google Apps for Education, a suite of free productivity apps. The apps are featured on Chromebooks, Google’s line of inexpensive laptops that are growing in popularity among public schools.

Google acknowledges that it scans and indexes for a variety of purposes, including filtering out spam and marking emails as “important,” as well as advertising. This cannot be turned off, but Google said that information is not used to target Apps for Education users with ads unless they choose to receive them.

“Ads in Gmail are turned off by default for Google Apps for Education, and we have no plans to change that in the future,” Bram Bout, the directors of Google Apps for Education, told Education Week.

Fread and Carillo, however, alleged that while Google does not advertise with Apps for Education, it uses data collected in these apps to advertise on other services, such as Google Search and YouTube.

In a motion to dismiss the lawsuit, Google said Apps for Education is covered by the same privacy policy as other Google services. Google has also gone on record saying its information from regular Gmail accounts for advertising, so the plaintiffs contend that this means the company is doing the same with Apps for Education emails.

EPIC believes this practice is a major violation of FERPA, which was enacted in 1974 to protect the privacy of educational records, and is pushing for an investigation into Google by the Education Department and the Federal Trade Commission.

So far, the Education Department has not commented on data-mining used in Google Apps for Education.

Others argue that FERPA is simply outdated, and that it doesn’t address the type of data collected by Google or other tech companies. Whatever the outcome of the lawsuit, advocates are calling for the a review and update of the law. 

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