Schools remain shuttered across the country, 30 million Americans are out of work, and food banks are running low, but the edutech sector is booming. Silicon Valley companies are feasting on an exploding client base of quarantined students held hostage to “online learning.”
Big Google is leading the way — and that is not OK.
Unsuspecting parents cheering all the software and hardware donations during the pandemic shutdown have no idea the privacy price their children are paying. This isn’t charity. It’s big tech recruitment of vulnerable generations of future Google addicts.
In California, Gov. Gavin Newsom and Google inked a deal to provide 4,000 “free” Chromebooks to students, along with “free” Wi-Fi to 100,000 families. In Kentucky, the Jefferson County public schools gave away 25,000 Chromebooks. In Philadelphia, public officials earmarked $11 million to purchase 40,000 Chromebooks for homebound kids.
Google CEO Sundar Pichai crowed a few weeks ago that the company now has 100 million students and educators hooked on Google Classroom. Bent on conquering the virtual meeting market, the online giant announced that its premium Google Meet videoconferencing features are now free to all 80 million customers of its G Suite for Education apps through the fall.
Google Meet is racking up 2 million new users a day as school districts abandon Zoom, the dominant virtual meeting app that recently admitted “mistakenly” routing non-Chinese calls through its Beijing-based data centers.
But if educators think Google will provide more protections for American students than the ChiCom government, they’re blind, dumb or bought off. As I’ve chronicled regularly in this column over the past decade, the Silicon Valley giant has repeatedly breached federal privacy laws to extend its tentacles into children’s emails, browsing habits, search engine activity, voice memos and more without parental consent.
Google’s information predators have previously admitted to unauthorized scanning and indexing of student email accounts and targeted online advertising based on search engine activity, as well as autosyncing of passwords, browsing history and other private data across devices and accounts belonging to students and families unaware of default tracking.
A new lawsuit seeking class-action status against Google filed in Illinois serves as a warning to all the millions of families enthralled by their pandemic-gifted Chromebooks. Father-of-two Clinton Farwell alleges that Google illegally collected personally identifying biometric information from his children through their public school-issued Chromebooks (loaded with G Suite for Education apps) dating back to 2015.
His suit lays out how Google has “infiltrated” K-12 education with hardware and software primarily targeting students under the age of 13, whose face templates and voiceprints are illicitly collected, along with their: physical locations; websites they visit; every search term they use in Google’s search engine (and the results they click on); the videos they watch on YouTube; personal contact lists; voice recordings; saved passwords; and other behavioral information.
Despite signing a “Student Privacy Pledge” promising not to collect, share and retain private personal data, Google Chromebooks scan students’ faces and unique acoustic details of students’ voices to identify them by name, age, gender and location while using Google platforms. Farwell realized his kids’ biometric data was being stored in a vast database when he discovered they were required to speak and look into the laptops’ microphones and cameras in order to use the school products and apps.
A similar lawsuit by the New Mexico Attorney General’s office filed in federal court in February exposed how Chromebooks and G Suite for Education apps mined students’ Gmail accounts for advertising purposes.
The New Mexico AG’s brief also bolstered my previous exclusive reports, based on whistleblowing by Missouri teachers Brooke Henderson and Brette Hay, on Google’s access to student profiles and family computer passwords through the default Chrome Sync function — which can only be blocked by creating a passphrase buried in settings that school officials never inform students about (let alone their parents left in the dark from the moment schools require kids to create Google logins as early as kindergarten).
And now governments are entrusting Google to help develop contact-tracing technology on the promise that they won’t collect location data, won’t exploit data for commercial purposes, and won’t grant access to unauthorized parties? Fox, meet henhouse.
Regulatory slaps on the wrist by toothless federal agencies have done nothing to deter the deceitful data usurpers. Why hasn’t every other state attorney general filed a similar suit? Where is Congress, which passed the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act of 1974 and the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act of 1998 to prevent exactly the kind of routine marauding of students’ digital lives perpetrated by Google and other EdTech vultures?
Instead of pushing back, Congress passed the “Every Student Succeeds Act” and the “Foundations for Evidence-Based Policy Act” — deceptively titled bills expanding third-party access to sensitive personal data.
The Invisible Enemy is right under our noses, in our homes and on our kids’ laptops. Instead of removing children en masse from their classrooms in the name of public health, responsible adults should be de-platforming Google’s privacy pillagers from every school in America in the name of public safety.