There are millions of Chromebooks being used to educate our children and questions about student privacy in the Google ecosystem are natural. Google's core business is collecting user data in order to target relevant advertisements and using a Chromebook almost requires one to have a Google account as do Google's apps and services. Knowing what Google is doing when our children are online or doing homework through a Google account is important.
Google has come under fire from the EFF (Electronic Frontier Foundation) several times since the company began a Chromebooks in the classroom program. Most notably in December 2015 when the EFF petitioned the FTC to act against Google for violating the K-12 School Service Provider Pledge to Safeguard Student Privacy (known as the Student Privacy Pledge), a public and legally enforceable policy described by the Future of Privacy Forum and the Software and Information Industry Association, endorsed by the President of the United States, and signed by more than 300 companies (including Google).
Google was found to be compliant with the Student Privacy Pledge by the organizations that wrote it.
This petition claimed that Google was collecting user data from students using Chromebooks through the Chrome Sync Service and using it for more than connecting a student with their online account tools and documents from any computer. This claim was found to have no merit, and both the FPF and SIIA — the authors of the Student Privacy Pledge — criticized the EFF's position and complaint.
It's good that the EFF hounds Google over how it treats students and their privacy. Organizations like the EFF exist to be our voice against organizations with corporate interests in mind and they perform an invaluable service by keeping tabs on what companies like Google are doing with our personal data. When a company like Google is found to be treating our data inappropriately the correct steps are taken to fix it, and when they are found to not be doing so we can be relieved.
But it's good to know how Google treats a thing as important as the privacy of a child. Just because they were found to be compliant with a policy doesn't mean we shouldn't ask these questions, so let's look at Google's policy towards educational products.
G Suite for Education
Google has a separate product with its own team when it comes to the G Suite for Education. It's a conglomeration of core services consisting of Gmail, Calendar, Classroom, Contacts, Drive, Docs, Forms, Groups, Inbox, Sheets, Sites, Slides, Talk/Hangouts and Vault. These services work mostly the same way as the commercial versions that we use daily, the differences being centered around group policy and management. Schools can use these services with full COPPA and FERPA compliance, as the G Suite for Education versions contain no ads and no data collection for advertisement purposes is done.
The Chromebooks that a school might issue to students is the same as a Chromebook you can buy at Amazon as far as features and functionality go. There may be an extra application installed like Google Classroom, but the things you see and how it's used are no different from any other Chromebook on the market. But there are differences when a Chromebook is used under the G Suite for Education program that you can't see.
Google apps for students may look the same on the outside, but there are very different data collection policies in play.
The G Suite for Education allows Chromebooks to be administered the same way a Fortune 500 IT department administers employee laptops. Policies about what can be installed, who can login, where and how it can be used and more can be created so that the Chromebook is part of a structured computing environment designed for education and not just a toy.
Additionally, when a Chromebook is used in a G Suite for Education environment Google extends the no data collection rules to the Chrome Browser Sync service and explicitly states that any data collected by Chrome Sync is only used by a students own account so that they can use any Chromebook and have access to their online tools and documents.
It's important to remember two other things here:
- Administrators can enable or disable any settings on a Chromebook under the G Suite for Education program. Browser history, cookies, online spelling tools or any other services are under the school administrators control.
- If used for anything outside the scope of the G Suite for Education, standard data collection practices may apply and Google makes no claims of COPPA or FERPA compliance. That's left to the teacher, the parent and the student to evaluate.
We hope that Google, as well as organizations like the EFF, continue to evaluate and refine these policies as more schools adopt Chromebooks and Google's services.
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