Google today announced that it will no longer scan the emails of the 30 million students and teachers who use its Apps for Education service after privacy advocates condemned the harvest of students’ personal information and a lawsuit concerning the practice was filed.
The problem, as Pando’s Carmel DeAmicis explained, is that students’ academic records might be discussed via emails processed by the Apps for Education service. Because those records are protected by the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, scanning those emails could have been a violation of federal law, in addition to providing Google with all kinds of personal data.
The company explains in its announcement that most students never saw any advertisements, as the option to display ads was turned off by default. (The option has since been removed and will be permanently set in the “off” position.) If that’s meant to be a defense against all of the criticism levied against the company, it’s a poor one, because advertising isn’t the problem — the problem is gathering information about students and teachers without their knowledge.
Google isn’t alone in facing this problem. HarperCollins was scolded by the Better Business Bureau in February for gathering information from pre-teens without their parents’ consent. Education Week commissioned a report showing that Edmodo and Khan Academy need to bolster their own privacy policies and explain some of their data protection practices. This issue isn’t unique to Google — it’s an increasingly visible part of education tech in general.
As Carmel explained earlier this month:
These developments show that the more schools — and states — start worrying about how student data is being handled, the bigger impact it will have on any companies seeking to get into the classroom. Privacy is now a realm where fast growing startups need to invest effort in understanding local, state, and federal legal requirements, in developing transparent policy explanations, and in nailing down how data collection will and won’t work. Such efforts may now determine whether or not your product makes it into a district.
It’s also a turning point for education technology in general. Until now, the consumer Internet, where people have largely given up their privacy in exchange for free services and unlimited storage, has translated to the education sector. The regulations that would hypothetically protect that from happening haven’t proved strong or clear enough.
Google has now been forced to respond to the outcries. The company will no longer gather personal information to display ads it says it wasn’t showing in the first place, and students can message with their teachers and school administrators without having to worry about the correspondence finding a permanent home on one of Google’s many databases.
[Illustration by Hallie Bateman for Pando]