On Tuesday, the Federal Trade Commission received a request from a digital rights watchdog to investigate the popular Google education service that’s headed by Google Inc. It was alleged the company’s pledge of restricting its exploitation of student user data is violated by this service. A non-profit privacy organization, The Electronic Frontier Foundation said in its complaint that the service called Google Apps for Education is in violation of a pledge that the search engine giant had signed in January. This was the Student Privacy Pledge, which was legally binding and had been signed by more than 75 other firms including names such as Microsoft Corp and Apple Inc.
The pledge is basically a vow to collect, save and use student data only for the purposes of education. In the past, the EFF has supported Google on various other issues and this complaint by them is aimed at the sync feature of the company’s web browser, Google Chrome that stores passwords, bookmarks and search and browsing history. The allegations made by the privacy watchdog assert that Google takes advantage of sync to use the browsing history of students and other data in order to use it for purposes other than education.
In response to the concerns outlined by the EFF, Google, which is now only a division of the Alphabet Inc. stated that it had taken the step of turning off the sync settings on the Chromebooks that were sold to schools. As per the new settings installed by Google, the data generated or entered by the students during their use of the Google Apps for education would not be used for any other purpose. In an email, a Google spokeswoman said that they were sure these steps were in compliance with their promise including the Student Privacy Pledge and also the law.
A spokesman for the FTC said that the complaint had been received by the regulator, but did not make any other comments. Nonetheless, in an interview, the EFF said that changing the sync settings wasn’t good enough. It said that personal information is still collected by Google when students log onto their Google Apps for Education accounts and make use of Google services that aren’t related to education. For instance, the logged-in students do searches and the terms are collected by Google, regardless of whether they are education-related or not. The FTC was asked by the group to ask Google to remove all student data it had accumulated and used.
It also requested the FTC to order Google to stop collecting this data in the future. Similar pledges have previously tripped up Google as they are legally binding in the United States. The company had had to pay $22.5 million for settling an FTC complaint, which alleged that the company had violated its advertising industry pledge by misstating the way it was tracking its web users. The Student Privacy Pledge was created by the Future of Privacy Forum and its co-chair, Jules Polontsky said that the document wasn’t violated by Google as it was using anonymized and aggregated data.