Google Accused of Tracking Student Internet Activity

December 08, 2015
By: John Casaretto

Low-cost notebooks have enjoyed a popular partnership with schools for some time. It should surprise no one that Google (News - Alert)'s Chromebooks are included in these partnerships. Both students and staff have integrated the low-cost systems into their daily activities for years. No harm, no foul, except that the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) has claimed the notebooks are secretly tracking information of students. The organization filed the complaint with the United States Federal Trade Commission (FTC (News - Alert)) last week.

 The accusations put Google in violation of their own promises under the Student Privacy Pledge and FTC rules against deceptive business practices. The Student Privacy Pledge is a legal document under which companies have committed to respect the privacy of students by not participating in the collection, sharing, or use of personal information.

The EFF examined Google’s Chromebook and Google Apps for Education (GAFE), which is a suite of educational cloud-based software programs used throughout the country by students. The complaint focuses on the Chrome Sync feature found on the notebooks, which is also present in the Chrome desktop browser. The foundation has taken issue with the behavior of the synchronization, which makes sure that users always have the same setup in their browser wherever they might log in. The settings are stored on Google's servers, which means they are susceptible to analysis by the company.

The EFF is calling the campaign 'Spying on Students', and they hope to raise awareness of the search giant's activities. The information that is collected includes bookmarks, surfing behavior, YouTube (News - Alert) videos viewed, and other personal information. Students and parents aren't notified of this collection behavior, and that has raised attention since there is often no option but to use the provided systems for schoolwork. 

Google has responded by providing a setting where Chrome Sync can be disabled on the Chromebooks put out by the school. With this feature turned off, the sensitive and personal information will be unable to share data with Google’s other services and browsers. The upcoming setting switch may not assuage all the concerns in the complaint as there are also administrative settings that allow information to be shared with third-party websites. The EFF is requesting a full investigation into the actions that Google has taken, to cease the collection activities immediately, and an order to destroy all of the information the company collected that were not used for educational purposes. 




Edited by Maurice Nagle