UPDATE: Google provided Sen. Franken with a response on Feb. 12, 2016.
After we filed our complaint with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) about Google's unauthorized collection of personal information from school children using Chromebooks and the company's educational apps, we heard from hundreds of parents around the country concerned about K-12 student privacy. This week, an important voice in Washington joined their growing chorus.
On Wednesday, Senator Al Franken (D-MN) wrote a letter to Google CEO Sundar Pichai asking for information about the privacy practices of Google Apps for Education (GAFE). Several of his questions reflect concern over the issues we raised with the FTC. Sen. Franken is the ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Privacy, Technology and the Law.
Explaining his reasons for writing to Google, Senator Franken wrote:
[A]s schools increasingly rely on technology in the classroom, students and their families have raised legitimate concerns about the privacy and security of students' data. There have been an increasing number of stories of the misuse of student data or poor security practices in schools using EdTech tools. When used appropriately, technology is a valuable tool for teachers and students alike, but we must ensure that students' very sensitive data are protected.
The letter then zeroes in on the core issues at stake in our FTC complaint–how Google tracks and treats student data when children are logged into their GAFE accounts but navigate outside the GAFE suite:
[T]here 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 services that are not deemed educational, such as Google Search, Google Maps, or YouTube.
As we pointed out in our FTC complaint, as a signer of the Student Privacy Pledge, Google publicly promised it will refrain from collecting, using, or sharing students' personal information except when needed for legitimate education purposes or if parents provide permission.
Yet without parental consent the company tracks and records students’ online activity in certain Google services and feeds it into an ad profile attached to the students’ educational accounts. Is there an educational purpose in that practice? Senator Franken has asked Google to explain why it collects this information, and as we raise in our FTC complaint, whether "Google [has] ever used this kind of data for its own business purposes."
The letter also inquires about the viability of an "opt-in" regime in which students and their families would participate only after granting their affirmative consent.
We're glad that Sen. Franken is examining these issues and look forward to seeing Google's response. Greater transparency by EdTech providers could greatly benefit student online privacy, as well as security.