When Personalized Learning Gets Too Personal: Google Complaint Exposes Student Privacy Concerns
When does personalized learning get too personal? That's the question behind a United States Federal Trade Commission complaint filed last week by the Electronic Frontier Foundation accusing Google of collecting and using personal student information for non-education purposes and in violation of its K-12 Student Privacy Pledge. Though Google has said that it did nothing wrong and remained “firmly committed” to keeping student information private and secure, the accusation exposes the escalating tension between school systems entrusted with safeguarding the privacy of kids and the innovators pushing the boundaries of modern education. Google agreed last year to stop scanning the Gmail accounts of millions of students using its Google Apps for Education, a collection of software for creating documents, spreadsheets and presentations and storing school projects. Although the technology giant said it wouldn’t place ads within Apps for Education, it could potentially have used that information to target ads to students elsewhere online. Google has said it never used student data to target ads anywhere.
Concerns about what data is being collected and how it is being used drove the EFF to investigate what Google was doing with data compiled through its Apps for Education program, after one parent complained. Jeff W., worried that his 9-year-old daughter would be tracked online, contacted the EFF after his daughter’s school began mandating the use of Chromebooks in the classroom. His concerns only grew when the district created a Google account for his daughter that included her real name and date of birth.
In California, the California Student Online Personal Information Protection Act (SOPIPA), which takes effect Jan. 1, will prohibit the operators of websites, online services and apps from using student data for targeting advertising or creating individual profiles except for school purposes. It restricts the sale or disclosure of student information and mandates that this sensitive data be protected.
Hailed by some as landmark legislation, SOPIPA has a significant loophole: These privacy protections do not follow the student when they wander beyond the digital school perimeter to general websites, online services or mobile apps. That could open the door to Google serving targeted ads to students once they leave its education apps, the EFF warned in a letter to one Northern California school district — though the federal Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) prevents sites from gathering information about children under the age of 13 without first obtaining a parent’s consent.