Google has announced, in a blog post by Bram Bout, Director of Google for Education, that it has halted the practice of scanning student Gmail accounts for any potential advertising purposes. This announcement is in response to Google’s admission, reported in a School Law Blog post dated March 19, 2014, that it “scans and indexes” the emails of all Apps for Education.
In its blog post, in bold type, Google states that “Google cannot collect or use student data in Apps for Education for advertising services.” Despite Google’s recent announcement, questions still remain concerning Google’s practices.
Law professor Joel Reidenberg, who worked on the recent Fordham University School of Law study on security concerns and practices involving cloud-based data storage (reported in a School Law Blog post dated January 15, 2014), identified two significant problems with Google’s reported new measure. The first is that Google can unilaterally change its practice at any time, and that the scanning disclaimer is associated with advertising purposes only. According to Reidenberg, “there may be other commercial uses that they are exploiting student data for,” such as selling information to textbook publishers or test-preparation services.
The reaction from the ed-tech industry to Google’s announcement was positive, but expressed concerns about overemphasizing student privacy. Mark Schneiderman, senior director of education policy for the Software & Information Industry Association, noted that the ed-tech sector will be challenged “to avoid over corrections that do not necessarily enhance privacy but instead unintentionally inhibit the effective use of data to enable school operations, enhance products and services, and personalize and improve student learning.”
The varied reactions to Google’s announcement reflect the continued challenges for student privacy in an increasingly digital world. Suffice to say, one can expect further developments as school districts, commercial providers, and federal and state governments all search for a solution and negotiate a balance between privacy and utility when it comes to student data.