Google education: increase transparency


Cartoon by Eli “Octopus Man” Saletan.

By Editorial Board

Each day, over 50 million students use Google’s G Suite for Education (GSFE), a set of educational tools including Classroom, Drive and Docs. What students don’t know, however, is that the privacy of their personal data may be in jeopardy.

Google has been hit with a series of complaints from multiple school systems over its handling of student data. Senator Al Franken (D-MN) brought these privacy concerns to the public’s attention January 2016 when he wrote in an open letter that Google may be collecting students’ personal data and selling that information to advertisers without notifying students or their parents.

More recently, Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood filed a lawsuit against Google Jan. 17, alleging that Google has been “collecting personal information and search history obtained from [students] in order to advance its own business interests and increase its profit.”

MCPS—which has been using GSFE programs since 2014 when the county signed a contract with Google—should request more information on Google’s data collection practices. This is essential to ensure the privacy of the 159,000 MCPS students who use Google’s services.

The extent to which Google collects student data is unclear because Google didn’t disclose this information when the GSFE program was first introduced. In 2014, a California lawsuit revealed that Google was collecting personal data from students, but Google claimed to have stopped doing so from core services—Drive, Docs, Gmail and other commonly used school applications—as a result of the suit. Whether they followed through on that promise is unclear, according to Hood’s lawsuit.

Even a student who chooses not to use Google products at home because of privacy concerns could potentially experience the loss of privacy that this lawsuit describes.

Additionally, there was no promise on data collection from non-core services, including the Chrome web browser. Hood’s lawsuit claims that Google could therefore be collecting students’ entire browsing and search histories and selling personal information to third-party advertisers. Students would be unwitting victims of a massive invasion of online privacy.

More problematic, however, is that students often have no choice but to use Google’s services in class on school-issued Chromebooks. Even a student who chooses not to use Google products at home because of privacy concerns could potentially experience the loss of privacy that this lawsuit describes.

MCPS did address privacy concerns when it initially introduced Google products into schools. But its assurance of privacy, communicated in the press release that announced the partnership, was based on Google’s privacy policy. If the lawsuit’s allegations are true, then the privacy policy is obsolete and MCPS needs further clarification.

Google claims on the GSFE website that their practices are ethical, saying that they comply with federal educational privacy laws. However, the lawsuit points out that they have yet to release records proving that they aren’t collecting sensitive data from students. If all their practices are legal and ethical, Google should be enthusiastic to prove so and help instill a similar confidence in their customers.

As education shifts toward including more and more technology, online privacy is a growing concern for school systems, including MCPS. By proving that they aren’t collecting student data, Google could pave the way for successful and safe integration of digital resources into the classroom and ensure the privacy of MCPS students and millions of others.