Students working on new Chromebook notebooks gifted to their school by Google.
Students working on new Chromebook notebooks given to their school by Google.

New Mexico's attorney general filed a lawsuit this week claiming that Google uses its education products and services to illegally collect data from children. The case highlights how the tech company has become deeply embedded in schools across the country, raising privacy concerns among child and privacy advocates. 

Katie McInnis, policy counsel for Consumer Reports, says the case demonstrates the need for school officials to look more closely at issues of student privacy.

“If the claims prove to be true, Google has been collecting highly sensitive information about children, including voice recordings, in violation of COPPA," she says. "Hopefully this example will make schools nationwide more fully examine the tech products and companies they invite into the classroom and children’s everyday lives."

More on Kids and Privacy

The lawsuit, filed Thursday in a federal court in New Mexico, claims that Google engages in "active, illegal and ongoing" collection of data from New Mexico schoolchildren under 13 without parental consent, in violation of the Federal Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, or COPPA, as well as a New Mexico law called the Unfair Practices Act.

According to the lawsuit, the data include geolocation information, websites visited, terms searched for on Google and YouTube, contact lists, and voice recordings.

Google offers its G Suite for Education products, including Gmail, Calendar, Drive, Docs, and Sheets, to school districts at no cost, and sells its Chromebook laptops at a low cost. Many students are required by their schools to use Google's products and services. 

For those students, there's no way to receive a public school education without having personal data collected by the internet giant, the lawsuit alleges. It calls that "unconscionable," even if the data aren't used for targeted advertising.

Google disputes the allegations. “These claims are factually wrong," a spokesman told Consumer Reports in an email. "G Suite for Education allows schools to control account access and requires that schools obtain parental consent when necessary."

“These claims are factually wrong. G Suite for Education allows schools to control account access and requires that schools obtain parental consent when necessary. We do not use personal information from users in primary and secondary schools to target ads. School districts can decide how best to use Google for Education in their classrooms and we are committed to partnering with them.”  - Google spokesperson 
 

Google's Footprint in Schools

Google's products are widely used in public and private schools throughout the U.S. The New Mexico lawsuit reports that 80 million students and educators across the U.S. use G Suite for Education, and 25 million students use Chromebook laptops.

Google provides a separate privacy policy for its G Suite for Education core products, which include Gmail, Calendar, Classroom, and Drive. But students can also access other Google services, such as Google Maps, Blogger, and YouTube, which are covered under the company's broader privacy policy. That gives Google the option to "offer[s] users tailored content, such as more relevant search results," and "combine personal information from one service with information, including personal information, from other Google services."

There are legitimate reasons why school districts use the company's products and services. Chromebooks are relatively inexpensive, and the company's software provides technology support that most school districts would be unable to execute, especially in an era of shrinking budgets.

But privacy advocates say they're concerned about the lack of a firm separation between Google's education products and its regular offerings. And they say the company isn't transparent enough when describing how it uses student data.

"YouTube is used by teachers all over the country all the time, and it doesn't seem to have the same protection for school accounts that, say, Gmail does," says Josh Golin, executive director of the advocacy group Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood. "Tens of millions of schoolchildren are using Google products in school but no one really understands what's going on with that data, and that's both a problem and a violation of the law."

According to published reports, the Norwegian Data Protection Authority is investigating the use of Google services in Norwegian schools, evaluating potential violations of Europe's GDPR data protection law. Last July, Germany banned schools from using cloud-based productivity software from Microsoft, Google, and Apple because of privacy concerns.

Last September, Google paid a $170 million fine in a settlement with the Federal Trade Commission over charges that YouTube, which is owned by Google, was collecting data about children without parental consent and using that personal information to target ads to them.