Edtech: Loopholes Lead to Cracks in Google's Student Privacy Policy

 | Oct 11, 2016 | 10:30 AM EDT
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Parents of students across America have been assured -- by Alphabet (GOOGL) and school administrators -- that the carts of Google Chromebooks being wheeled into their children's classrooms won't be used to track their young ones' online activities. But this only applies to the tech company's education-focused apps, and other online activities may not be protected, according to privacy advocacy group Electronic Frontier Foundation.

This is the third article in a three-part series exploring the growth of the education technology industry -- and the role big tech companies are playing in this expansion. 

Educational technology (edtech) is a lucrative frontier for tech companies, and Google's increased presence in the classroom has paid dividends in multiple ways. The Google Chromebook now accounts for over 50% of the educational tech space in the U.S., according to data from Futuresource Consulting. GOOGL is a holding of the Action Alerts PLUS portfolio.

Google's low-cost Chromebook outsold fellow AAP holding Apple's  (AAPL) range of Macs for the first time in the U.S. during the first quarter this year, thanks mostly to the laptop's adoption in the classroom. While PC shipments continued to decline during the period, Dell, HP (HPQ) and Lenovo (LNVGY)  , combined, sold nearly 2 million Chromebooks in the quarter -- compared to 1.76 million U.S Mac shipments, according to IDC estimates.

Alphabet has been focusing strongly on this market for some time now. "Chromebooks made incredibly quick inroads in just a couple of years, leaping over Microsoft (MSFT) and Apple with seeming ease," a Forrester analyst told CNBC last year.

But the company has come under scrutiny recently from the Electronic Frontier Foundation for lack of transparency in its student privacy policies. Despite Google's assurances that students' online activities are secure, they are still subject to the same tracking as non-students when they are on third-party websites that fall outside of the Google suit of educational products, says the EFF.

Alphabet's suite of student apps, known as Google Apps for Education, which often come preloaded on classroom Chromebooks, are protected from data mining. But other sites may not be.

The EFF contends that any company looking to enter the classroom needs to be completely transparent with its intentions and practices to ensure student safety and privacy, especially if public money is used to facilitate the purchase of the company's products.

The Future of Privacy Forum developed its Student Privacy Pledge in conjunction with the Software and Information Industry Association, modeling the pledge after a student privacy law recently passed in California called the Student Online Private Information Protection Act (SOPIPA).

About 25 other states have similar legislation, according to education technology firm EdSurge. While EdSurge referred to SOPIPA as "groundbreaking" when it passed in 2014, the fine print on the bill leaves a lot to be desired, according to the EFF.

"We think the pledge is a good idea, but there is a disconnect from the way companies interpret the pledge and the way parents do," EFF staff attorney Sophia Cope told Real Money in an interview.

Section (m) of the law states: "This section does not apply to general audience Internet Web sites, general audience online services, general audience online applications, or general audience mobile applications... ." When translated from legalese to English, that statement basically gives companies like Alphabet the loophole they need to be able to mine data from students using their products -- as long as that data comes from third-party websites outside of the purview of the companies' software.

"This is a huge loophole, and it's obvious that the tech-company lobbyists won this loophole," Cope said. "This loophole grants Google the very data access that the pledge purports to deny."

The EFF took its concerns to the Federal Trade Commission, filing a complaint with the regulator over the collection and data mining of school children's personal information. But a year after the complaint was filed, the FTC has still taken no action on getting Google to offer further privacy protections.

Despite the apparent failings of the pledge to completely protect student's privacy while they use Chromebooks, Google has unequivocally denied spying on students. Google Apps for Education director Jonathan Rochelle said in a blog post that, "While we appreciate the EFF's focus on student data privacy, we are confident that our tools comply with both the law and our promises, including the Student Privacy Pledge, which we signed earlier this year." 

The blog post went on to criticize the EFF's conclusion, saying, "The co-authors of the Student Privacy Pledge -- The Future of Privacy Forum and The Software and Information Industry Association -- have both criticized EFF's interpretation of the Pledge and their complaint." Alphabet did not respond to a request for comment for this article. 

But on its own, the company updated its privacy policy, adding the transparency that the EFF called for and detailing exactly what information it collects from students when they venture outside of the suite of apps designed specifically educational purposes.

"To summarize, we use the information we collect from all of our services to provide, maintain, protect and improve them, to develop new ones, and to protect Google and our users. We also use this information to offer users tailored content, such as more-relevant search results. We may combine personal information from one service with information, including personal information, from other Google services," the new policy states.

While the transparency update was lauded by Cope and the EFF, it falls well short of the type of student privacy the organization has championed.

Not only does Google gain market share with its push into the classroom, the company also gets the added benefit of exposing its products to children at an early age, familiarizing them with Google products in an effort to garner brand loyalty.

"Google wants to capture a whole new generation of loyal users that they can monetize down the road. So, while there is a benefit for students in having technology in the classroom, parents and school administrators have to decide what the cost of that technology should be," Cope concluded.

At the end of the day, the onus is currently on parents to protect their children's privacy as the internet makes its way into the classroom. Google, while making an effort to protect student's privacy, still has a long way to go when it comes to respecting the privacy of students using its products. Parents have to bridge that gap by making sure that their kids are using the Chromebook only for the school work the laptop was designed for, according to the EFF. Otherwise they are fair game, just like the rest of us.

Part 1 of this series can be found here.

Part 2 of this series can be found here.

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