Staff Columnist

Big Tech and public schools are spying on your children

'Elf on the Shelf' is a chump compared to Google in the classroom

Dell netbooks used by students at Walden Elementary School in Deerfield, Ill. (Anthony Souffle/Chicago Tribune/TNS)
Dell netbooks used by students at Walden Elementary School in Deerfield, Ill. (Anthony Souffle/Chicago Tribune/TNS)

Elves on shelves are surveilling millions of children this holiday season. But that gangly doll is no match for the long tentacles of Big Tech.

G Suite for Education is a powerful platform that gives schools cloud-based programs for word processing, presentations, project collaboration and more, all provided to schools free of charge by Google. The software is designed to seamlessly pair with Google Chromebooks, which are cheap laptops many schools use to give every student their own dedicated device.

At least 80 million students, including thousands in Iowa, use G Suite, according to the company. Millions of others use similar products from other companies and many states, including Iowa, offer fully online K-12 coursework through the public school system.

In many cases, participation in ed-tech programs is mandatory for students, and parental consent is not necessarily required. This puts unwitting third-graders at risk of breaching their own privacy.

Federal regulators are considering updating rules surrounding the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, or COPPA, a 1998 law meant to restrict internet use and data collection on internet users younger than age 13.

As part of the rule-making process, the Federal Trade Commission solicited comments earlier this year on a series of questions related to the law. One of those items speaks directly to privacy in schools: “Should the Commission consider a specific exception to parental consent for the use of education technology in schools?”

The issue is whether educators should be explicitly authorized to stand in for parents when signing their students up for internet accounts, such as Google. Even though the current language of the law seems to require parental involvement, privacy advocates say changing regulatory language has led to confusion and non-compliance.

“It’s kind of like the wild West. Different schools and districts are doing different things,” Leonie Haimson, co-chair of the Parent Coalition for Student Privacy, told me.

Google specifically advertises that its education products are compliant with COPPA and the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act. The company also states that the education program’s “core services” do not contain advertising, and promises information from those services is not used for advertising purposes.

However, today’s children see no clear lines drawn between school work and recreation on the internet.

When students are assigned a Google profile for school, many of them use the same login to watch YouTube or send personal emails at home. Their teachers and the Google servers maintain access to all of the information they generate. It’s one of the ways we are putting government schools — not families or community groups — at the center of children’s lives.

This month, 24 attorneys general, including Iowa’s Tom Miller, signed a letter to the Federal Trade Commission raising concerns with COPPA enforcement. They worry that current regulations have created a “significant exception” to parental consent requirements.

“If schools may serve as proxies for parents under COPPA’s consent regime, nothing prevents Google from relying on its relationship with schools to allow it to upload and store data such as students’ bookmarks, web searches, passwords and online browsing habits, regardless of whether the online activity occurs for educational purposes, or occurs during or outside of school hours,” the attorneys general wrote.

I am a Google fan and I’m unabashedly in favor of corporate data collection, as long as all parties have a clear understanding of what the relationship involves. We can voluntarily give up a little bit of our privacy in exchange for free software and a better internet experience.

However, it is simply impossible for elementary schoolchildren to understand the risks involved, or to grasp the enormousness of the digital footprints they leave behind. Parental consent is a crucial step in the process.

(319) 339-3156; adam.sullivan@thegazette.com

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