US State Sues Google For ‘Illegally Gathering Data On Children’

The US state of New Mexico has accused Google of using its educational products to illegally gather data on children and families.

In a new federal lawsuit the state’s attorney general said Google collected students’ personal information, including data on their physical locations, websites visited, YouTube videos watched and voice recordings.

“The consequences of Google’s tracking cannot be overstated: children are being monitored by one of the largest data mining companies in the world, at school, at home, on mobile devices, without their knowledge and without the permission of their parents,” state attorney general Hector Balderas said in the lawsuit.

Google said the claims were “factually wrong”.

Education

Google is a popular brand in US education, with more than half of the country’s public schools using Google Education apps such as Gmail and Google Docs.

The apps are used by some 90 million students and teachers worldwide, while according to the lawsuit 25 million students and teachers also use Chromebooks.

The New Mexico state attorney general’s office estimates two-thirds of the state’s school districts use a Google Education product.

The lawsuit in the US District Court for the District of New Mexico said Google had violated the federal Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, which requires companies to obtain a parent’s consent before collecting personal data such as name and contact information of a child under 13.

“Student safety should be the number one priority of any company providing services to our children, particularly in schools,” Balderas said in a statement.

“Tracking student data without parental consent is not only illegal, it is dangerous.”

KRQU News in Albuquerque cited Balderas as saying Google “should be telling parents that they’re going to stalk and track these children, and under the guise of education”.

Privacy issues

Google deceived schools, parents and students by telling them there were no privacy concerns with its education products, even as it gathered large amounts of data on students physical locations and online activities.

The company has differing privacy policies for different products, with “core” products for schools, including Gmail and Drive, restricted to using data for school purposes only.

But other products, such as YouTube, are covered by a consumer privacy policy allowing Google to use data for purposes such as product development.

Schools are provided with a dashboard to manage which apps students have access to, but the different policies can be difficult to understand, and YouTube, for instance, is also used by many schools in spite of its consumer privacy terms.

In addition, Chromebooks automatically synchronise with other devices linked to the same Google account, such as Android phones or home computers.

User profile

According to the lawsuit, this results in a single user profle blending the student’s educational and non-educational activities, which can be viewed by Google.  A setting that would block full access by the company is turned off by default, the lawsuit said.

Google said the lawsuit was “factually wrong”, saying  its education products allow schools to keep control over students’ data.

“G Suite for Education allows schools to control account access and requires that schools obtain parental consent when necessary,” the company said in a statement.

“We do not use personal information from users in primary and secondary schools to target ads.”

In 2019 Google paid $170 million (£130m) to the Federal Trade Commission to settle allegations it illegally collected children’s personal data on YouTube.

Matthew Broersma

Matt Broersma is a long standing tech freelance, who has worked for Ziff-Davis, ZDnet and other leading publications

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