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

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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
Senior Editor — Google Ecosystem

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.