Google has become a dominant player in educational technology, with its Chromebook making up 51% of device sales to schools in the third quarter of 2015. Part of the reason for this rise is that Chromebooks are available to school districts at a fraction of the cost of other devices and come complete with free software used by more than 50 million students and teachers worldwide.
That’s an issue for the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), a nonprofit privacy organization, which filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission accusing Google of collecting and data-mining Internet searches by children. The group claimed Google is using some of the collected information to sell targeted ads.
In addition, the EFF said Google is tracking user activity through the Chrome Sync feature, which automatically is turned on in Chromebooks. That tracking function is being used without parental consent, the group argued.
“In some of the schools we’ve talked to parents about, there’s literally no ability to say, ‘No,’” Nate Cardozzo, staff attorney for the EFF, told The Washington Post.
Google countered with a blog post claiming its educational apps comply with the law, while admitting that it does collect data of student activities to improve its products. In addition, both the Future of Privacy Forum, which authored the student privacy pledge that was signed by Google, and the Software and Information Industry Association sided with Google.
“We have reviewed the EFF complaint but do not believe it has merit,” said Jules Polonetsky, executive director of the Future of Privacy Forum.
Along with lack of parental consent, school districts are also not informing parents of online service policies. A 2013 study of found that 95% of the surveyed school districts relied on an online cloud service, but only 25% informed parents.
“Despite publicly promising not to, Google mines students’ browsing data and other information, and uses it for the company’s own purposes,” Cardozo said in a statement to CBS News. “Making such promises and failing to live up to them is a violation of FTC rules against unfair and deceptive business practices. Minors shouldn’t be tracked or used as guinea pigs, with their data treated as a profit center. If Google wants to use students’ data to ‘improve Google products,’ then it needs to get express consent from parents.”