Security Experts:

Google Accused of Tracking Students via Chromebooks

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) has filed a complaint with the United States Federal Trade Commission (FTC), claiming that Google is spying on students with the help of Chromebooks.

According to the complaint, Google has enabled the Sync feature by default in the Chrome browser on Chromebooks sold to schools, which allows it to track websites that students access, their search habits, and saved passwords. However, EFF notes that Google is not using the gathered data for targeted advertising within a subset of Google sites.

Google’s data tracking practice was uncovered during research for a newly launched EFF campaign called "Spying on Students". Aimed at raising awareness on privacy risks of school-supplied electronic devices and software, the campaign allowed the EFF to examine the not only the Chromebook, but also Google Apps for Education (GAFE), a suite of software programs designed for schools across the country.

EFF claims that with the Sync feature enabled in the Chrome browser on Chromebooks, Google can track, store, and data mine a broad range of information on students, including visited websites, search terms, accessed search results, videos watched on YouTube, and saved passwords. Moreover, the Foundation notes that Google doesn’t have permission from students and patents for this practice, and that data collection cannot be prevented, since some schools require students to use Chromebooks.

Also worth noting is the fact that Google tracks and stores said information despite the fact that it signed the Student Privacy Pledge. As per this legally enforceable document, companies commit to refrain from collecting, using, or sharing students’ personal information unless they have parent permission or the data collection is required for legitimate educational purposes.

The Internet giant already promised to disable the Sync setting on school Chromebooks, which should prevent data such as browsing history from being shared with other Google services. However, EFF says that this small step in the right direction does not correct the violations of the Student Privacy Pledge that Chromebooks being distributed to schools currently inherit.

According to the FTC filing, the administrative settings that Google provides to schools make it possible for student personal information be shared with third-party websites, which further violates the Student Privacy Pledge. Children’s information is collected whenever they login into their Google accounts via Chrome, regardless of the device they use for that.

“We commend schools for bringing technology into the classroom. Chromebooks and Google Apps for Education have enormous benefits for teaching and preparing students for the future. But devices and cloud services used in schools must, without compromise or loopholes, protect student privacy. We are calling on the FTC to investigate Google’s conduct, stop the company from using student personal information for its own purposes, and order the company to destroy all information it has collected that’s not for educational purposes,” EFF Staff Attorney Sophia Cope said.

The “Spying on Students” project was built to help parents and school administrators learn more on the risks involved in student data collection by companies supplying technology tools for schools. On the project’s dedicated website, interested parties can find facts on data collection, a case study, and tips on how privacy can be improved.

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