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The Electronic Frontier Foundation filed a federal complaint against Google this week, accusing the search giant of violating its own promises to not collect personal information from children using its devices and services in the classroom.
The EFF, a digital rights advocacy group, alleges that Google is "collecting and data mining school children's personal information, including their Internet searches." The results came from the EFF research, and were officially detailed in a complaint to the U.S. Federal Trade Commission on Monday.
Specifically, Google's "Sync" feature in its Chrome browser is enabled by default on Chromebooks that are sold to schools, without obtaining permission from students or their parents. This feature allows Google to track, store and data mine a myriad of online activities by students, including sites visited and searches conducted.
Google's alleged tracking is said to violate the Student Privacy Pledge that the company signed earlier this year, along with Apple, Microsoft and others. The agreement intends to keep student information safe, and according to the EFF the pledge is legally enforceable.
Prior to signing the Student Privacy Pledge in January, Google had maintained that its internal policies were enough to demonstrate a commitment to student data privacy.
Google's alleged classroom tracking and data mining discovered by the EFF are said to be conducted for non-advertising purposes. Still, the pledge only allows for collecting students' personal information for legitimate educational purposes, or if their parents expressly provide permission.
Google responded to the EFF's findings and said it will disable a setting on educational Chromebooks that allow Chrome Sync data to be shared with other Google services. But the EFF said Google's change doesn't go far enough to address apparent violations of the Student Privacy Pledge.
"Devices and cloud services used in schools must, without compromise or loopholes, protect student privacy," said EFF Staff Attorney Sophia Cope. "We are calling on the FTC to investigate Google's conduct, stop the company from using student personal information for its own purposes, and order the company to destroy all information it has collected that's not for educational purposes."
Apple has long been a mainstay in the education market, originally with its Mac lineup and more recently with its iPad tablets. Google has looked to chip away at Apple's success with its own low-priced Chromebook computers, which have been primarily sold to schools with a suite of education-focused apps.
In an effort to boost its own institutional sales, Apple is said to be working on major changes to its iPad in Education program, aimed at bringing down some of the barriers schools encounter when trying to deploy iPads in the classroom. Specifically, Apple is reportedly to be planning to allow schools to distribute apps without assigning Apple IDs to each tablet, while in 2016, schools will be able to create and manage Apple IDs for students that can be used to access iCloud.
Apple has also expanded its partnership with IBM beyond the enterprise and into the classroom. Together, the companies are co-developing an experimental app that provides teachers with real-time student data analytics.
As its rivalry with Google has grown, Apple has increasingly highlighted its role as a privacy-conscious corporation, in direct contrast with Google, which earns virtually all of its money from advertising based on data collection. Last year, Apple Chief Executive Tim Cook penned an open letter to customers to bring attention to his company's new security initiatives, noting that Apple's business is selling products, not harvesting data.
"Our business model is very straightforward: We sell great products," Cook said. "We don't build a profile based on your email content or web browsing habits to sell to advertisers. We don't 'monetize' the information you store on your iPhone or in iCloud. And we don't read your email or your messages to get information to market to you. Our software and services are designed to make our devices better. Plain and simple."
Update: In response to the EFF's complaint, Google's director of Google Apps for Education, Jonathan Rochelle, said Google's policies are in line with current laws and industry standards. Further, Google is committed to keeping student data private and secure, he said.