Google Chromebooks are hot property in American schools, with sales currently outstripping the iPad. Classrooms love their responsiveness, wide high-definition screens, and long-lasting batteries, but could these devices put students’ privacy at risk?

Google Admitted to Data Mining

Google has used data mining, the technique of creating profiles of its users based on their online activities, for years. When the company introduced a new privacy policy, designed to better target users through the use of data mining, it insisted students using Google Apps for Education would be exempt. However, documents lodged before a class action lawsuit against Gmail data mining earlier this year revealed a different story.

In official filings, Google’s lawyers admitted the company data mined student e-mails at all times, even when the ad-serving function was deactivated. They also conceded Google Apps for Education was not exempt from the new privacy policy.

Lawsuit Encouraged Google to Change Its Policies

The court case found Google’s data mining activities breached the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, which controls access to student records. Following the ruling, Google decided to stop data mining the e-mails of students using Apps for Education. It also removed ads from the product entirely.

Social media lawyer Bradley Shear called the decision “a good first step for protecting student privacy,” but questioned why it took the company years to make the change. “Absent multiple lawsuits and the investigative reporting from Education Week, would Google have changed its practices?”

Could Google Still Use Chromebooks to Data Mine Students?

Potentially, the answer is yes. Google only discussed ending data mining of student e-mails—as opposed to ending data mining of students altogether.

In Shear on Social Media Law, Bradley Shear asked, “Will Google also turn off its scanning and behavioral advertising functions for its other services such as YouTube in a school setting? Will Google also change its Android and Chromebook policies to better protect student privacy? Will Google change its terms of service and privacy policies that govern all of its education offerings? Will Google revise all of its school contracts to reflect this announcement?”

Auto Log-In May Make Data Mining Difficult to Escape

Teachers like Tom Mullaney, creator of the Sustainable Teaching blog, love that Chromebooks automatically logs in to Google Apps for Education. However, this convenience comes at a cost. This feature made it easy for Google to data mine students from the moment they booted their devices. While Google won’t data mine students through Gmail, other apps could potentially be exploited.

What’s the Harm?

Students will no longer see ads when using the Google Apps for Education site, but these ads will appear when they perform other web activities such as searching for information using Google or viewing a YouTube video. If Google were to resume data mining through Chromebooks through another channel, it could ensure these ads would be targeted to student users. According to SafeGov.org, 80 to 90 percent of parents oppose targeted advertising and the assessment of student activity that makes it possible.

Parents can take comfort in the knowledge K12 is against data mining. Visit K12 to discover how your children can start learning in private today.


 

 Image via Flickr by kjarrett

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