As readers probably realize, I’m a big fan of Google’s Chromebooks and their strong push into education. Sadly, one of my other favorite things, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, has launched a complaint against Google with the Federal Trade Commission, alleging that Chromebooks were used for “collecting and data mining school children’s personal information, including their Internet searches.” Google hasn’t wasted any time issuing a rebuttal. Jonathan Rochelle, Director of Google Apps for Education, stated in a blog post that: “we are confident that our tools comply with both the law and our promises, including the Student Privacy Pledge, which we signed earlier this year.”
The EFF insists that that’s exactly what they don’t do, and went on to clarify its initial announcement. As well as “Google’s use of Chrome Sync data for non-educational purposes,” the EFF stressed, “Google has other practices which we are just as concerned about, if not more so. In particular, the primary thrust of our complaint focuses on how Google tracks and builds behavioral profiles on students when they navigate to Google-operated sites outside of Google Apps for Education.”
Google’s view is that “Chrome Sync enables Google Account holders to log into any Chromebook or Chrome browser and find all their apps, extensions, bookmarks, and frequently visited web pages. For students, this means that they can get to work, right away. That’s one of the reasons Chromebooks have become so popular in classrooms, especially for schools that can’t afford a device for every child.” As for the other Google services outside its core educational suite, Google states, “schools can control whether students or teachers can use additional Google consumer services — like YouTube, Maps, and Blogger — with their GAFE accounts. We are committed to ensuring that K-12 student personal information is not used to target ads in these services.”
The merits of the case are obviously what the FTC adjudication is about. However, one point does spring to my mind. If the EFF is asking Google to restrict or partially disable non-core educational functions on its Chromebooks, it’s potentially handicapping poor students in their free use of what may be their only digital device – for the sake of a point of principle. Google has said, and the EFF mostly seems to accept, that it’s logging Chromebook educational user info not to sell ads, but to improve its services. “While we agree that Chrome Sync is an incredibly useful service, we don’t think students should be guinea pigs in Google’s efforts to improve its products without explicit parental opt-in—even if their data is anonymized and aggregated,” says the EFF.
It’s not only Google in the frame. “Rest assured that we’re not limiting our campaign to one company,” adds the EFF. “In the coming weeks and months we intend to continue investigating the practices of other cloud-based education services.”
So, is the EFF a white knight/Robin Hood? Or too purist for its own good this time? Is Google truly not being evil? Or freeloading off K-12 initiatives and sharing students’ secrets? Watch this space … though Big Broogle may be watching you …
(Image courtesy of ToonPool/CartoonCreator.nl, 2008)