In Letter To Google CEO, Sen. Franken Raises Questions Regarding Student Data Collection

In a letter sent Wedesday to Google CEO Sundar Pichai, U.S. Senator Al Franken (D-Minn.) sought to raise questions regarding Google’s use of data gathered from their EdTech initiatives.

While I commend Google’s foray into education technology (“EdTech”), I am concerned about the extent to which Google may be collecting K-12 students’ personal data and using that information for non-educational purposes without parents’ knowledge or consent.

A report from the Electronic Foundation Frontier (EFF) surfaced last month suggested that the data being gathered by Google’s educational programs (used in schools by over 50 million students) was being used to track students.

The EFF alleged that Google’s Chromebook and Google Apps for Education (GAFE) had been deceptively tracking students and had been storing student activities taking place on all of Google’s products and had been doing all of this by default. More so, the EFF alleged that the company’s actions had violated the Student Privacy Pledge, which Google has signed.

Sen. Franken touched on these reports and expressed concerns that the company was violating the privacy of students in schools across the country.

…I understand that there may be a discrepancy in how Google treats student data obtained through its core Google Apps for Education (GAFE) services – products that are deemed educational – versus how Google treats student data obtained through other Google services that are not deemed educational, such as Google Search, Google Maps, or YouTube. As a result, Google may be tracking and storing students’ Internet browsing activity, passwords, and video viewing behavior when a student is logged in to their GAFE account or using a Google Chromebook but isn’t actually using GAFE services. I am concerned that this collection of data may enable Google to create detailed profiles of the students and ultimately target advertising to them or use the profiles for other non-educational purposes without the students’ knowledge. Furthermore, I understand that unless a school administrator bars students from accessing non-GAFE services, users may have limited ability to consent to this collection of data or its possible use for non-educational purposes.

Google responded to the claims of misuse of student data in a post from Jonathan Rochelle, Director of Google Apps for Education, who wrote that, “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, including the Student Privacy Pledge, which we signed earlier this year.”

Still, Sen. Franken had a laundry list of questions for Google to answer, largely focused on the type of data being collected and whether that information was being shared with third-parties or being used to target ads at students.

The full list of questions he asked in the letter is listed below:

  • When a student is signed in to their GAFE account but is not using one of the GAFE services, what kind of data does Google collect on an individual student?
  •  When a student is using a Chromebook but is not using one of the GAFE services, what kind of data does Google collect on an individual student?
  • If Google does collect any individualized data on a student, such as browsing information or viewing habits, when a student is using a Chromebook or is logged in to their GAFE account but is not using one of GAFE services, please address the following questions:
    • For what purposes does Google collect this information?
  • Is it necessary to collect all of this information for the provision of GAFE services or to deliver other valuable features that may be relevant for educational purposes?
  •  Has Google ever used this kind of data to target ads to students in Google services, either in the GAFE services or other Google services, such as Google Search, Google News, Google Books, Google Maps, Blogger, or YouTube?
  • Has Google ever used this kind of data for its own business purposes, unrelated to the provision of Google’s educational offerings?
  • Is it possible to make this data collection opt-in?
  • Does Google share this information with additional parties?
  • Google has indicated that it compiles data aggregated from student users of Chrome Sync, anonymizes the data, and uses it to improve its services. Can you expand on how the aggregated information is treated? For example, does this include sharing the aggregated data with third parties for research purposes or otherwise?
  • Can you describe Google’s relationship with school districts and administrators that choose to use Google for Education products and services? Apart from publicly available privacy policies, does Google offer any explanation to parents, teachers, and education officials about how student information is collected and used?
  • Can you describe all the contexts and ways in which both school administrators and parents of students using Google for Education products and services have control over what data is being collected and how the data are being used?