by Swapnil Bhartiya

EFF files complaints against Google for tracking students

Dec 03, 2015
Open SourceSecurity

Google refutes such allegations and says it’s tools comply with both the law and their promise on student privacy.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) has filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) alleging that Google has been collecting and data mining personal information of students.

EFF made the discovery while researching its Spying on Students campaign, which launched yesterday.

While Google doesn’t explicitly track students for targeted advertising, EFF found that the ‘sync’ feature of Chrome browser was enabled by default. The sync features allows one to immediately get access to browsing history, bookmarks and setting by logging into that account. While it’s a very useful feature, it also means that all this information is stored on Google servers and as a result, EFF claims, “This allows Google to track, store on its servers, and data mine for non-advertising purposes, records of every Internet site students visit, every search term they use, the results they click on, videos they look for and watch on YouTube, and their saved passwords.”

The reason EFF went after Google is that Google recently made a public commitment to not track students by signing the Students Privacy Pledge. EFF believes that Google has violated the pledge.

However the authors of the pledge disagree with EFF. The Student Privacy Pledge (SPP), FPF Executive Director Jules Polonetsky released a press statement, saying, “We have reviewed the EFF complaint but do not believe it has merit.  Chrome Sync is a setting within the control of the school IT administrator, and can also be changed by parents or students.  This feature allows students to log in at home or at a library and have access to their school bookmarks, favorites and other settings.  Since Chromebooks may be shared among students in school (with password-protected accounts for each student using that particular hardware device), many schools rely on Sync so that multiple students have ready access to their accounts and settings on the same device.  We understand that any data collected is not used for behavioral advertising and all other data uses are aggregated and anonymous.  The Chrome Sync setting is a general feature of all Chromebooks, whether purchased by schools or the general public.  We don’t believe the complaint raises any issues about data use that are restricted by the Student Privacy Pledge.”

Google told EFF that it will disable settings on school Chromebooks that sync data, such as browsing history, to be shared with other Google services. But the company disagreed with EFF and wrote in a blog post, “While we appreciate the EFF’s focus on student data privacy, 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 co-authors of the Student Privacy Pledge, The Future of Privacy Forum and The Software and Information Industry Association have both criticized EFF’s interpretation of the Pledge and their complaint.“

It will be interesting to see how FTC responds to this complaint when the authors of the pledge have sided with Google.