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If Schools Use Google Devices, Your Kids' Privacy May Be in Jeopardy

The Short of It

Google products now dominate in schools and usher in major privacy concerns for students using them.

The Lowdown

According to Futuresource Consulting, in 2012, the devices used by K-12 schools in the United States were mostly made by Apple; less than 1 percent were Chromebooks. But now, it's the exact opposite. Chromebooks accounted for 51 percent of device sales to schools in the third quarter of 2015, mainly due to the lower cost—just $100 to $200 per laptop—and the accompanying free education software. Data shows more than 50 million students and teachers currently use Google programs worldwide.

Cheaper technology and free software sound like a win-win for schools, right? But privacy experts warn the company is using its leverage to track what students are doing online and then using that information to sell kids targeted ads.

In fact, the Electronic Frontier Foundation just filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission, accusing Google of tracking almost everything students are doing when they're signed into their Google accounts so they can target them with ads. The EFF further alleges the company is collecting information on students even when they aren't using programs in the education suite, like Gmail, Calendar, and Google Docs. While kids are signed into their accounts, programs like Search, Maps, Youtube, and Google News are also being tracked for ad sales purposes, says the foundation.

Another worrisome feature is Chrome Sync, which is automatically turned on in Chromebooks. It allows users to share their browsing history and passwords between devices and browsers, which is another privacy violation, argues the complaint.

And parents have no idea any of this is happening, and they haven't consented to sharing their children's information. Plus, they aren't given the option to opt their kid out of using the technology. "In some of the schools we've talked to parents about, there's literally no ability to say, 'no,'" Nate Cardozo, a staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, told the Washington Post. Furthermore, administrators may not understand the extent of the information being collected.

For its part, Google says its education apps do comply with the law, although it doesn't deny collecting the information. "We have always been firmly committed to keeping student information private and secure," Jonathan Rochelle, director of Google Apps for Education, wrote in a blog post defending its practices.

The company also recently signed a student privacy pledge promising to limit how it collects and uses student information. And it says Chrome Sync is only intended to help improve the user experience.

The Upshot

One way to protect students' information is to do what public schools have done in the Washington, D.C. suburb of Alexandria City. They disable the Chrome Sync feature and limit the programs students can access.

Another way around any potential problem is to opt out of using school-provided devices, and bring your own, but that has proven tricky for some parents who have attempted such a measure.

And as Laura Assem, chief technology officer at the Roseville City School District in California points out, "Unfortunately, technology advances faster than legislation." Plus, according to current laws, schools are not required to gain parental consent to share information about students with companies it contracts with.

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