Google Accused Of Snooping On Students’ Internet Activity

gafeGoogle is one of more than 200 companies that have signed on to the “Student Privacy Pledge,” in which it promises to, among other things, “Not collect, maintain, use or share student personal information beyond that needed for authorized educational/school purposes.” But a new complaint accuses the Internet biggie of breaking its oath and spying on kids’ online activity.

In a complaint [PDF] filed with the Federal Trade Commission today, the Electronic Frontier Foundation accuses Google of “collecting, maintaining, using, and sharing student personal information” in violation of that Privacy Pledge.

As part of its research into the potential privacy risks of computers and software provided to schools, the EFF looked at Google Apps for Education (GAFE) suite of educational cloud-based software programs.

According to the complaint, when students are logged in to their Google for Education accounts, Google collects and uses for its own benefit data about the students’ use of non-educational Google services.

“This includes recording students’ browsing behavior on every single Google-operated site students visit regardless of its relation to schoolwork… records of what students have searched for on the Internet and the results they click on, the videos they search for and watch on YouTube, the browser extensions they have installed, and their saved passwords,” reads the complaint. “Such data reveals highly personal information about students and is not necessary to deliver educational services.”

What’s more, alleges the EFF, while there is no advertising within the Google educational apps, the data collected about the students is then used to target them with advertising elsewhere online.

While Google does use aggregate and anonymous data for its targeting, the EFF cites research showing that you really own need a few points of data to figure lift the veil off that anonymity.

And even if this aggregating and anonymizing worked perfectly, argues EFF, “Google’s use of students’ browsing history for its own benefit and without authorization from the student or parent, runs contrary to the letter and spirit of the Student Privacy Pledge. Aggregating and anonymizing students’ browsing history does not change the intensely private nature of the data – nor the fact that at the time of collection, it was tied to identifiable student accounts – such that Google should be free to use it, despite having promised not to do so without authorization from the student or parent.”

The EFF contends that violating the very public Privacy Pledge — an oath that Google uses in its marketing of its educational products — is in itself a violation of the FTC Act’s prohibition against “deceptive acts or practices in or affecting commerce.”

“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,” said 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.”