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Google: No, We're Not Snooping on Students With Our Chromebooks, Apps

Search giant pushes back against EFF allegations.

Matt Cardy | Getty Images

In a blog post on Wednesday, Google claimed it had done nothing to invade the privacy of students using its laptop educational software, pushing back against accusations from a top advocacy group.

The response comes as the Electronic Frontier Foundation filed a complaint on Tuesday with the Federal Trade Commission, asking the agency to probe Google for breaking its own privacy commitments. The EFF alleged that Google for Education, the search giant’s school initiative, collects and shares personal student data in violation of the Student Privacy Pledge, which Google signed in January.

“While we appreciate the EFF’s focus on student data privacy, we are confident that our tools comply with both the law and our promises,” wrote Jonathan Rochelle, director of Google Apps for Education.

Google’s full-throated defense leans on the privacy settings baked into Google’s products, a position Google has stressed lately as it has come under fire from Apple, its chief rival in the education market.

It also cites some supporters. The group behind the Student Privacy Pledge came to Google’s defense, writing that the EFF complaint includes “important misunderstandings” about the pledge. The Future of Privacy Forum, a D.C. think tank and fellow signatory of the pledge, backed Google as well.

The EFF stood by its claims in a post on Wednesday. Its argument hinges on two Google practices.

The first is the way students log into their Google accounts. They can use a series of apps that Google tailors specifically for schools, which Google tracks anonymously, as it does with all its services. But if the students hop over to other Google products, like YouTube or Maps, they are still tracked and their keystrokes and visited sites are shared with advertisers, the EFF claims. (The Student Privacy Pledge says data can only be collected for “educational/school purposes.”)

“Google, as far as we understand it, is treating students just like any consumer,” said Sophia Cope, an EFF staff attorney.

The second involves Google’s browser inside its Chromebooks, which are distributed widely in schools. The browser has something called “Chrome Sync,” a setting that tracks browser history by default. If a student signs into Chrome in the classroom, then later at her home computer, she’s able to save her personal settings — but is also being tracked. Again, Google and the EFF agree that it’s anonymized; and Google would argue that personalization can be valuable for classrooms that don’t have enough laptops for each student. But the EFF scruple is that this is built in a way to automatically track information and deploy it for non-educational reasons.

In Google’s defense, Rochelle claims that the Sync feature is necessary to make the browser better. And, he said, it does not serve targeted ads to individual students:

Personally-identifiable Chrome Sync data in [Google Apps for Education] accounts is only used to power features in Chrome for that person, for example allowing students to access their own browsing data and settings, securely, across devices. In addition, our systems compile data aggregated from millions of users of Chrome Sync and, after completely removing information about individual users, we use this data to holistically improve the services we provide. For example if data shows that millions of people are visiting a webpage that is broken, that site would be moved lower in the search results. This is not connected to any specific person nor is it used to analyze student behaviors. If they choose to, educators, students and administrators can disable Chrome Sync or choose what information to sync in settings whenever they choose. GAFE users’ Chrome Sync data is not used to target ads to individual students.

The EFF, in its Wednesday post, admits that Sync can be a useful service, but stresses that students shouldn’t be “guinea pigs in Google’s efforts to improve its products” without the explicit approval of their parents.

“Google is creating this little army of loyal users. These kids are being conditioned to give up their personal data in order to go online,” said Cope, the EFF lawyer. “There’s just a lot of opaqueness of what data they’re collecting and how they’re using it.”

More than 200 companies have signed the Student Privacy Pledge, including Apple and Microsoft. (Google actually initially declined to sign the pledge, citing its existing privacy rules, but then changed course a week later.)

A rep for the FTC confirmed that the agency had received the EFF complaint, but declined to comment further.

Google was forced to pay a $22.5 million fine to the FTC in 2012 to settle charges for tracking Apple iPhone users.

Tech companies have all benefited from a White House initiative to prepare students for the 21st century. Google may be the biggest beneficiary; while its affordable Chromebooks have not seen wide consumer traction, they’ve taken off in schools. IDC estimates that sales of the devices grew by 310 percent last year, surpassing sales from Microsoft and Apple.

Last month, when reports surfaced that Google was killing off its Chrome operating system, the company issued a rare public denial. Chrome was staying put, Google said, largely citing the success of Chromebooks in schools.

This article originally appeared on Recode.net.