Google will no longer data mine student e-mail accounts

After a lawsuit concerning privacy of students using Google's suite of education apps gained traction, the tech company announced it would end its practice of data-mining its education-specific apps.

Alan Diaz/File/AP
Google is spearheading the project #40Forward, which provides funding to help accelerators and incubators support female entrepreneurs.

Good news: Google will no longer sell ads based on information gleaned from its suite of education products.

Wait, they were doing that?

It’s no secret that the technology company in Mountainview, Calif., makes money off ad revenue, often through analyzing e-mail and search content. But the lines become a bit more blurred when it comes to education-specific products, as those protesting Google’s practice say this violates state and federal laws. In response, the search engine has halted data scanning on its “Apps for Education” products.

The practice came to light through a lawsuit filed by California students against Google. The students say the company’s practice of data-mining education apps, such as Gmail, is against the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), which protects the confidentiality of student information. Since they were required to use a school-specific Gmail, they were never were given the chance to opt-out of Google’s data-mining practices.

Google’s Apps for Education are Google products specifically designed for specific educational institutions, and can be used from kindergarten through college. The apps include Gmail, Google Docs, Calendar, and Google Drive. More than 30 million students, educators, and administrators use these tools.

Previously, Google scanned e-mails for information, though it maintains that it did not include advertisements on Apps for Education products. Protesters still worried that information taken from these products could be used to target advertisements or spread confidential data about students in the future.

“Who knows what ... Google is doing with that information, and who knows what problems it could cause for that child in the future,” says Bradley Shear, a social-media and digital-privacy lawyer based in Bethesda, Md., to Education Week. “Years ago, it might have been put in a filing cabinet, but it wouldn’t be tagged to the child forever.”

However, Bram Brout, director of Google for Education, wrote a blog post on Wednesday announcing an end to the data-mining process. Specifically, these are the changes, according to Mr. Brout:

  • We’ve permanently removed the "enable/disable” toggle for ads in the Apps for Education Administrator console. This means ads in Apps for Education services are turned off and administrators no longer have the option or ability to turn ads in these services on.
  • We’ve permanently removed all ads scanning in Gmail for Apps for Education, which means Google cannot collect or use student data in Apps for Education services for advertising purposes.

Brout also says the company is taking steps to remove the practice from its business and government-specific apps, as well as a free version of the Apps.

“We know that trust is earned through protecting their privacy and providing the best security measures,” he writes.

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