Your Child Gets a Free Computer; What Does Google Get? Parents and Activists Worry

Fourth-grade students work on laptop computers at Monarch School as San Diego Unified School District President John Lee Evans watches on October 8, 2013. In-class laptops and Chromebooks are being sold to schools at an exponential rate, and parents and activists are increasingly worried about children's digital privacy. REUTERS/Mike Blake

In September, Jenny M., a mother of two middle schoolers in northeastern Ohio, emailed her school district to opt her kids out of a new computer-assisted learning program in class using Google Chromebooks.

An adherent of "old-school education" like writing in cursive and worried that Google may start collecting data on her children, Jenny—who did not wish to share her full last name with Newsweek—wanted to opt out of the program. The day after she sent the email, the superintendent replied that the district did not need her parental consent for her children to participate in the Chromebook program.

The superintendent also warned that the children's grades might be lowered if they didn't use the laptops. "If by refusing to utilize Google Docs, they are unable to effectively participate in class or to produce the required work, they will receive grades reflecting their performance," the letter to Jenny M. reads.

Concerned parents like Jenny M. are small in number and scattered across the country. But as computers become ever more integral in classrooms, with large tech firms like Google and Microsoft providing cheap laptops, tablets and educational apps to schools, reported clashes between educators and parents have been increasing in the past year.

The heart of the issue is protecting privacy for children who are beginning to leave their first footprints on the Internet. This has led dozens of school districts across the United States to adopt forms that ask for parental consent before a child signs up for a Chromebook and a Google Apps for Education (GAFE) account.

Many of these opt-out forms refer to the 1998 Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), which requires online services to get parental consent to store information for children under the age of 13.

But 17 years after its passage, COPPA has done little to solve student-privacy issues on the Internet once and for all. On Tuesday, digital rights advocacy group the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) against Google for collecting and storing schoolchildren's personal information, including their browsing history.

As part of its research on student privacy, the EFF discovered that a default "Sync" setting on Chromebooks given to classrooms allowed Google to track students and store their data. It also discovered that if a student logged in to any Google-run application with their educational account on any device outside of classrooms, Google tracked students there as well.

The EFF says that while Google will not serve ads catered toward the student's browsing history within educational apps like Google Docs or Gmail, it will serve ads to students on non-GAFE apps like YouTube or Google News.

The EFF contends these practices run counter to the Student Privacy Pledge, sponsored by President Barack Obama, which Google signed in January. The Student Privacy Pledge had tech giants like Google, Microsoft and Apple agree not to collect, maintain, use, share or sell student personal information without consent from parents or schools and then only for educational purposes.

For the EFF, Google's alleged violation of the Student Privacy Pledge has given them the legal backbone to file a complaint with the FTC. While there "may be a COPPA violation" by Google, says EFF attorney Sophia Cope, the EFF focused on the Student Privacy Pledge for its complaint because it covers students over the age of 13 and was a legally binding contract.

"We're asking Google to stop, delete and inform parents and schools about their current practices," says Cope. "If Google isn't willing to do this, they need to withdraw from the Student Privacy Pledge."

Google declined to answer questions Newsweek sent in an email but referred to a blog post published on Wednesday by Jonathan Rochelle, the director of Google Apps for Education. In the post, titled "The Facts About Student Data Privacy in Google Apps for Education and Chromebooks," Rochelle denied many of the EFF's assertions about GAFE, most notably that data will be served for advertising purposes.

Google, however, has agreed to disable a Chromebook setting that allows Chrome "Sync" data to be shared with other Google services, according to the EFF.

Google would not tell Newsweek the size of its Chromebook program in the United States, but a recent report from Futuresource Consulting found that 51 percent of all tech devices in classrooms were Google Chromebooks. In 2012, Google made less than 1 percent of such devices.

The rapid rise of Chromebooks in classrooms and the requirement that students as young as 7 years old create Google accounts has alarmed some privacy-conscientious parents.

Jeff W., a father based in Roseville, California, and a Navy veteran who served in the Iraq War, told Newsweek he did not want his daughter signing up for digital accounts this early in her life.

Jeff, who like Jenny did not share his full name with Newsweek, believed the messages parents and schools try to send children about being careful putting their private information online and yet signing them up for Google accounts was hypocritical.

"The general public has not realized what it's like to live with privacy compromised," Jeff W. says. "I used to sleep in a naval ship with 80 guys in one room. I know what life without privacy looks like."