Lords of the internet, Google are facing harsh criticism by the Electronic Frontier Federation (EFF) for mining and collecting personal information through Chromebooks and Google’s Apps for Education.

The EFF have made the claims as part of their new “Spying on Students” campaign. The EFF’s main complaint centers around Google Chrome’s sync feature commonly found on Google’s Chromebooks and also the Chrome Browser. The EFF argue that because the ‘Sync’ feature is by default enabled on Chromebooks sold to schools, it allows Google to track and mine students data, collecting a record of everything each individual student does via Chrome.

chrome spying

The EFF’s complaint centers around Google’s Chrome Sync feature, which can be found on desktop Chrome browsers as well as on Chromebooks. The feature allows users to ensure they’ve got the same browser setup regardless of which computer they’re on, and in order to sync settings across the Internet, Google needs to upload those settings to its servers. But according to the EFF, it also allows Google to store student browsing data on its servers, and it’s turned on by default on Chromebooks sold to schools.

While the EFF do state that Google are not using the information they gather for the purposes of advertising to the children, they are concerned that Google is being wilfully deceptive in its intentions, and therefore breaking their own promises. Google is one of the original signatories of the Student Privacy Pledge, alongside Apple, and Microsoft. The pledge is supposedly a declaration of honest intent that includes commitments to not use data harvested from student computers to target advertising, against children. The Electronic Frontier Foundation says Google’s policies violate the Student Privacy Pledge, but Google disagree.

Google’s low cost notebooks have proven to be extremely popular with school children in the USA. Just under 3.5 million of them were sold to the educational sector last year. The popularity of Chromebooks also ties in with the extensive use of Google’s Apps for Education, an education tech solution that tailors services like Gmail and Google Drive for schools and pupils.

The EFF criticism focuses on three areas in particular where they believe that Google may be breaking their end of the Student Privacy Pledge. The EFF complains that:

  • That students personal information about regarding non educational Google services is collected.
  • That Chrome Sync is turned on by default, thus enabling Google to collect “students’ entire browsing history and other data.”
  • That account settings allow system administrators to share “student personal information with Google and other third-party websites.”
  • That Google didn’t seek permission from students to collect data, and that as Chromebooks are almost mandatory in some schools, parents and guardians of students have no choice but to accept Google’s collection of data.

Google however have disagreed with the EFF’s accusations in a blog post rebuttal written by Jonathan Rochelle, a director at Google:

“Students’ personal data in (Google Apps for Education) Services is only used to provide the services themselves, so students can do things like communicate using email and collaborate on assignments using Google Docs. There are no ads in these Core Services, and student data in these services is not used for advertising purposes…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…”