Education Week is reporting that nine plaintiffs are suing Google for indexing student emails. The federal judge on the case is deciding whether to approve their request to turn it into a class action lawsuit.
Google’s Apps for Education program, which includes Gmail accounts for schools, has 30 million users in K-12 and higher education institutions around the country. As Google is wont to do with its Gmail users, it was automatically scanning said messages and building user profiles for advertisers.
Only one problem: The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act protects the privacy of students’ educational records. If teachers, parents, or students are sending academic information through their Apps for Education Gmail account, and Google is scanning it and storing it away for future use, it could be violating federal law.
Google is not the only company to step in the issue of youth privacy recently. As Pando covered, HarperCollins was served a warning a few weeks ago by the Better Business Bureaus for similar activity. The publishing giant had been gathering kid’s addresses, emails, names, and ages on the Ruby Redfort book series site without proper vetting in place to make sure parents had agreed to it.
This action is expressly prohibited by another law — the federal Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA). COPPA says that websites must have safeguards in place, like challenge questions, to ensure parents are giving their consent for their children’s data to be collected.
After the BBB “recommended” Harper Collins remedy the situation, the company blocked the information gathering feature for people from the United States. It walled off access to the newsletter, instead of putting in a procedure for parents to give consent. Anyone who selected their country as the UK or another nation, however, could still complete personal details without many barriers in place.
HarperCollins could do that because it doesn’t impact the publisher much if it collects a few less email addresses from children who are fans of Ruby Redfort.
But unlike HarperCollins, Google’s data mining activities are core to its business. It has built a hundred billion dollar empire on its targeted advertising offerings. That’s information it’s able to collect because Gmail and Google users give up their rights to privacy in exchange for the technology.
It has been mining the data of its users for years, and it seems to have forgotten that the laws surrounding certain demographics are a tad tougher. The government doesn’t look fondly on taking candy from babies — or students.