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The EFF calls out Google for privacy issues in the EDU sector but the school districts need educated, too

Android dudes
Android dudes (Image credit: Jerry Hildenbrand / Android Central)

The EFF (Electronic Frontier Foundation) has renewed their charge against Google, Microsoft, and Apple for the way student privacy is handled in their respective educational markets. They say "Students and their families are backed into a corner."

As students across the United States are handed school-issued laptops and signed up for educational cloud services, the way the educational system treats the privacy of students is undergoing profound changes—often without their parents' notice or consent, and usually without a real choice to opt out of privacy-invading technology.

We should want the EFF to act as a watchdog when it comes to our privacy. Or our kids' privacy.

This is a serious problem, and we should want the EFF to keep pushing and pushing until they can't find anything to push. With about three-quarters of the education market, Google will certainly be looking out for its own bests interests as will Apple and Microsoft who still find the education sector a pretty lucrative peach. Online privacy for children — especially young children under the age of 13 — is a thing we should all care about and everyone needs to advocate.

The bigger problem is that the teachers and administrators running these programs on the local level aren't informing students or their parents or even other teachers about the things they should know. And that something Google (and their industry rivals) needs to fix, too.

Teachers love Chromebooks. Students love Chromebooks. The people in the school districts who pay the bills love Chromebooks. But it takes more than love to manage a school system where students are working through the cloud. There needs to be better support and training because sometimes the people running the program and who have control aren't sure how to use it.

We all had teachers we remember fondly. Mr. Aquisto taught me how to weld when I was 10 and I'll never forget that. Or him. Teachers don't make enough money to be doing what they do just to get rich and retire. They care about their students and want to prepare them for life as an adult. But most of them aren't IT professionals or security researchers. The love of teaching isn't going to be helpful when it comes to getting a student set up to use a Chromebook with their own Google account while being aware of the potential privacy issues.

Even the best science teacher can need help rolling out Chromebooks while minding student privacy.

Some of the bad practices the EFF points out are admins creating accounts and filling in the personal details for faculty and students without any advance notice, not allowing students or their parents finish the setup process themselves and read the privacy policy and terms of use, allowing children under 13 to get set up with a Google Account without parental consent, and not offering an alternative method of learning for children whose parents would opt-out if given the choice. We expect Google to try and collect data using every legal method available, but the idea that these sort of things are happening is worrisome. And avoidable.

Let's be clear: None of these problems is Google's fault. The Chromebook for Education platform is a very good thing that needs a group like the EFF to constantly police it so Google doesn't go too far. Google offers support for the setup and administration of all the hardware and the admin software, and they aren't obligated to do more. But they should want to.

The money spent to outfit a school district with Chromebooks may be less that it would be to use iPads or Surfaces, but it's still a whole lot of money. It needs to come with a real live human being to train faculty members during the initial rollout and a way to contact them in person while the schools are participating. Something needs to change so teachers and school administrators aren't following very bad procedures because they don't know any better.

Google doesn't have to offer more or better training for their EDU partners, but they should want to.

Using Chromebooks in a properly supervised education environment is a great way to prepare children of all ages for the future. The program needs to expand until every child in every school has access to the technology they need to learn as much as they can. But not at the expense of their privacy, and certainly not because the undertrained staff isn't sure how to guard that privacy. I think part of "Don't Be Evil" is educating your customers about the best ways to deploy and use the equipment they are buying.

Jerry Hildenbrand
Jerry Hildenbrand

Jerry is an amateur woodworker and struggling shade tree mechanic. There's nothing he can't take apart, but many things he can't reassemble. You'll find him writing and speaking his loud opinion on Android Central and occasionally on Twitter.

22 Comments
  • Wait so the EFF is going after these companies for selling hardware for school children to be able to learn and use the Internet? I'm sorry but I'm confused on where the "privacy" aspect comes in if these machines are restricted to learning applications. Unless they're not?
  • The EFF's beef is how a Google account is required and how a profile might be built for all the kids. Ideally, the hardware would be restricted to school activities only but I'm sure that's not the case. I agree with them mostly. At least agree that someone needs to be looking into it to make sure it's all on the up and up. But I really think the biggest problem is how the teachers get this dumped in their lap without proper training or knowing what might be going on behind the scenes of a student Google account.
  • Please correct me if I'm wrong, but the eff issue with chromebooks started when a microsoft person was upset that his child's school started using chromebooks and complained to them. On twit tnt the other day the eff guy's issue was that chrome sync was turned on by default. With google apps for edu being a cloud based service, wouldn't sync of data on chormebooks for edu be the default? Love that the EFF exist, I just think their approach on this issue should be based on facts and not trying to win an argument, that seems to me like google and its cloud must be evil. I'm all for asking lots of what if questions and my feeling is google is good at protecting my data and
    that google, and microsoft with their possible cloud book for edu, are the right people to look after edu
    stuff.
  • Good for you; I myself believe Google have long since abandoned their "don't do evil" philosophy, and I would certainly insist on an opt-out for creating a personal Google-account for my clueless, soon-to-be-teen kids...!
  • Agree to disagree
  • <blockquote>The EFF calls out Google for privacy issues in the EDU sector but the school districts need <b>to be</b> educated, too</blockquote>
    FTFY 😉
  • That's the joke.
  • Work in the education sector, we've deployed hundreds of chromebooks. We do set up accounts for each student, and staff as well. In fact it's linked to their AD accounts, so it's single sign on. As far as I know, no parent has ever been asked if it's ok that their child be given an account. We do restrict their use considerably, no apps can be installed to them for example. They're basically just used as cheap web surfing machines. If anyone ever discovers the existence of chromeboxes it will considerably reduce our use of Windows machines. They aren't used as much in the middle and high schools, just because there are needs at those levels that chrome OS just can't meet at the moment.
  • Our district has chromebooks. I teach middle school, and kids (parents) have to sign various forms/waivers in order to use the chromebooks/have a google account. If they are under age 13 they have even more forms that parents have to fill out too. 
  • We use Chromebooks in our district as well. We have waivers for the parents and kids to sign, and they're pretty locked down. When there are problems, then it comes to our frontline Help Desk techs - of which I am one - to solve any issues that come up. Right now, it's 3-12 using them, but we're looking to bring that down to second graders as well. Our major problem with Chromebooks seems to be the type we're using. I love Lenovo, but they're giving us fits right now. They're slowly getting better, but only time will tell how much better they'll get.
  • So, what do you do when parents refuse to serve Google tons of info on their kids?
  • There are alternative assignments for students. There has been no parents who are against it in our district (so far)
  • Same as Premium1 said. I haven't seen parents who don't allow their kids to have Google accounts, but I do have a couple of kids who can't have laptops due to previous transgressions with MacBooks. They get pencil and paper assignments and only use Chromebooks in cases such as state testing.
  • Fair enough. Says more about parents' lack of knowledge about what they're handing down to their kids... Still, I'd think schools might consider the implications; they could hand the students any random windows pc, and the kids would be quite anonymous, but with a Chromebook, they HAVE to identify the kids for them to be productive...
  • IF we handed "any random Windows PC" to one of our students we certainly wouldN'T be able to PROTECT them in the same way that we can with G Suite Education and a MANAGED (one with the Chrome Management license) Chromebook!
  • "And that something Google (and their industry rivals)" [that's] "not allowing students or their parents finish" [to] Suggested fixes for archiving, in []s!
  • "Suggested fixes for archiving, in []s!" [I have] That's not a complete sentence. I fixed it for you.
  • I guess the EFF doesn't understand most districts require students to have a parent sign a computer use agreement act?
  • Could it be that they understand most parents haven't got a clue what they're agreeing to...?
  • Then that's the parents problem. You should blindly & stupidly sign up for crap you don't understand.
  • should?!
  • Some good thoughts in this. In my experience, some teachers not co-operative with alternative assignments. In our case it was child who had a concussion and was under doctor's orders not to use computers. The school was only minimally cooperative. When the whole biology class curriculum is now based on the use of a chromebook, its hard to work around even if they want to.