Tech mega-giant Google has announced it will cease scanning emails of students using its Google Apps for Education suite, doing so under “intense pressure,” according to Juan Carlos Perez reporting for IDG News Services.
In its traditional Gmail service, Google scans emails for content and designs online advertisements accordingly. There are no advertisements in the version of Gmail used in schools, but the scanning was being done nonetheless.
Bram Bout, director of Google for Education, announced the change in a blog post:
“We’ve permanently removed all ads scanning in Gmail for Apps for Education, which means Google cannot collect or use student data in Apps for Education services for advertising purposes.”
Perez quoted industry analyst Tom Austin as saying, “Google was under intense pressure to stop this activity and they yielded to the pressure. They had a problem of appearances and did the right thing.”
The Apps for Education suite had previously come with a toggle switch allowing administrators to decide if the wanted to turn advertising on or off. Google says from now on the toggle switch won’t be part of the suite, and scanning of emails has been turned off permanently.
Google only announced it was scanning the emails as part of a lawsuit filed against the company in March, according to an article by Larry Magid of Forbes.com. The lawsuit, currently being heard in California, is the result of several plaintiffs, including students, equating Google’s scanning of their Gmail messages to wiretapping and thus, a breach of privacy.
According to a report by Education Week magazine, those scans might violate the Family Educational Rights Act (FERPA):
The Education Department’s recently issued guidance on student-data privacy appears to deem the alleged practices of Google Apps for Education as violating FERPA. Some experts, however, argue that the federal law is too antiquated to effectively address the complex privacy concerns raised by such high-tech data mining.
The confusion is contributing to a growing wariness of cloud-based education service providers, such as Google, among some K-12 officials.
Google began offering Apps for Education in 2006. In addition to the email service, it offers Google Drive, Google Docs, spreadsheets and a version of YouTube.
This is the second time in 10 days that a major education technology provider has changed course due to concerns over a lack of privacy. As reported on April 25 by EducationNews.org, InBloom, the data repository which received $100 million in seed money from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, announced it was shutting down after losing several clients, most notably the New York State school districts.
Google said it will continue to scan emails for advertising purposes in its traditional consumer offerings, as well as in Google Apps for non-advertising purposes.