Google in Big Trouble for Data-Mining Student E-mails

 I will be writing a thread about what I learned at the Work Session on data privacy yesterday.  Some is good, some not-so-good (with Director Carr asking the best questions).  But I can say that SPS has NOT done enough. 

From Education Week:

As part of a potentially explosive lawsuit making its way through federal court, giant online-services provider Google has acknowledged scanning the contents of millions of email messages sent and received by student users of the company’s Apps for Education tool suite for schools. 

In the suit, the Mountain View, Calif.-based company also faces accusations from plaintiffs that it went further, crossing a “creepy line” by using information gleaned from the scans to build “surreptitious” profiles of Apps for Education users that could be used for such purposes as targeted advertising. 

Gmail is a key feature of Google Apps for Education, which has 30 million users worldwide and is provided by the company for free to thousands of educational institutions in the United States.

“This should draw the attention of the U.S. Department of Education, the Federal Trade Commission, and state legislatures,” said Khaliah Barnes, a lawyer with the Electronic Privacy Information Center, or EPIC, a Washington-based advocacy group. “Student privacy is under attack.”

The questions swirling around Google Apps for Education also have major implications, observers say, for how the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, or FERPA, will be interpreted and enforced in the new era of digital technology and “big data” in schools. 

They note that the Houston School District declined to adopt the Google Apps for Education exactly because of worry over what Google would be doing with data it gets from student use.

“The landscape of what districts are facing is changing at light speed,” Mr. Schad said. “We have to come together as educational entities and say to vendors that certain privacy protections are non-negotiable, and we won’t do business with you until they are in place.”  

How many people are involved?

In California, a total of nine plaintiffs are accusing Google of violating federal and state law. They hope to turn the case into a class action and are seeking financial compensation for millions of Gmail users, as well as better disclosure by Google of its practices.  (Google could not provide a current number of K-12 users in the United States.)

From a Google declaration to students at the University of Alaska:

"The University of Alaska (“UA”) has a “Google Mail FAQs,” which asks, “I hear that Google reads my email. Is this true?” The answer states, “They do not ‘read’ your email per se. For use in targeted advertising on their other sites, if your email is not encrypted, software (not a person) does scan your email and compile keywords for advertising. For example, if the software looks at 100 emails and identifies the word ‘Doritos’ or ‘camping’ 50 times, they will use that data for advertising on their other sites.”

“The fact that Google put this in their declaration means we take it as true,” said Ms. Barnes of the privacy watchdog group EPIC. Google’s sworn court statements reveal that the company has violated student trust by using students’ education records for profit.”

 And again, information could follow a child forever and they might never know.

To illustrate the potential harm of Google’s alleged data-mining practices, Bradley S. Shear, a social-media and digital-privacy lawyer based in Bethesda, Md., posed a hypothetical situation in which a teacher using Google Apps for Education emails a parent with information related to a child’s disability status or mental health. 

If the full range of allegations in the California suit is true, Mr. Shear said, the contents of such an email could be used by Google to build a digital-user profile that might follow that student indefinitely.

This is why I am concerned.  You should be as well.


mirmac1 said…
I have very timely information about the laxity with our childrens' data. The other day my eighth-grader comes home and says her advisory class was spent registering on

Now I'm familiar with that name because I saw it come up frequently in the Road Map Project grant application.

I told her to terminate her account and that I would speak to building administration. When we logged on, I saw no way to close the account.

I reminded her that we don't put our personal information online; that I don't blame her or her teacher because he was probably told they must do it. Then she said that as she was inputting the login (which included her student ID), the data fields were already populated with her race, age etc. My email popped up, but she was told to use her Gmail account.

This raises many red flags to me. I am angry that the district (and their PSESD and philanthropic friends) do not consult with parents when signing them up for data clouds that track job and college apps, and know your personal info.

Bad News.
Anonymous said…
Whoa!!!! As I read both the post and the first comment, I felt like my insides were gonna boil. I'm sooo mad and disgusted.

There are so many people (also known as corporations) profiting off of our students, ripping off their right to privacy in the process.

Despite the money flow, somehow there is never adequate funds for educating the whole child and our students are ripped off again.

and it all seems to be more so every year and every day.

not smiling

mirmac1 said…
"ConnectEDU Raises $10 Million in New Equity Round
Thu, 27 Oct 2011 09:20:00 -0700
(Boston, MA) Ocobter 27, 2011 - ConnectEDU, Inc., the leader in web-based college and career access solutions, today announced it has completed a $10 million equity offering led by Allen & Co. with the continued support of the company's initial group of investors from the education, private equity and Internet industries. The new round of funding will fuel the company’s continued expansion and acquisition strategy.

"This round signifies our shareholders’ interest in continuing to aggressively pursue ConnectEDU's mission to service students, and those who serve them, throughout their education, career and financial planning process," said Craig Powell, ConnectEDU Chief Executive Officer. "This funding will accelerate the continuation of ConnectEDU’s successful acquisition strategy, which has included our Enrollment Marketing and Retention Management business and CoursEval, the leader in web-based student and teacher assessment.”

In the last year, ConnectEDU has opened offices in Hoboken, NJ and Austin, TX in support of its growth and national expansion. The company was recently selected by San Francisco Unified School District to implement Connect!, and it was featured in Washington Monthly Magazine for its work with Miami-Dade School District, the fourth largest school district in the United States, and Yale University.
Miramac, the Board needs to know about this.
mirmac1 said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
mirmac1 said…
When you don't know whether to laugh or cry. Stephen Colbert.
Anonymous said…
Lots of profit being made on students and education by private companies. The legislature couldn't pass a COLA (cost of living adjustment) for 7th straight years. What other profession gets this lack of respect?
I'm saddened but not surprised. It would be nice to be able to pay off debts. Luckily I love my job and I make a lasting difference for so many families. Not sure Pearson can say that. I also sleep well at night

Saddened teacher
mirmac1 said…
When I registered my strong objection to this data-collection and "networking" site, I received the following:

"Yes, this is a district mandate. Therefore there was no consultation with families as this was decided at the district level for all students, and this year, for all 8th graders, to be registered as we prepare them for high school. (emphasis added) The district purchased this program (and selected it from many other similar tools I think about three or four years ago through a grant.) Thank you for informing us about your concern and I will share this very important feedback to our district staff (the head of the College and Career Readiness Department/Program is Ms. Janet Blanford). We, as a school, just started to use it this year since we already had the Navigation 101 free resources from OSPI. (It had the online capacity until the funding for that ended at the last budget year at the state level.)

Thank you as always for your consistent support of our counseling program and bringing up family concerns to the attention of our school board directors. Thank you for your continuing participation in our Career Day and other PTSA activities.

I will consult with Ms. Blanford on how to close a student account. I have not been trained to do that at all. As soon as I receive that information, I will let you know. Families do have access to their children’s accounts."
Well, Mirmac, that is some interesting information as it seems somewhat contrary to what I heard at the Work Session on Data Privacy.
Anonymous said…
They told us last night at the Hale meeting, the new IT guy was there, that SPS didn't use Google and that we used Microsoft because you can opt out of data mining.

Anonymous said…
Hide n seek:

Google Inc. (GOOG), the world’s largest Internet-search provider, is seeking to black out portions of a transcript from a public court hearing that includes information on how it mines data from personal e-mails.
Google, fighting a lawsuit claiming its interception of e-mails amounts to illegal wiretapping, asked U.S. District Judge Lucy H. Koh in a filing yesterday to redact “confidential”information from the transcript, without being more specific. (more)

dw said…

Your comments here leave me with many questions!

The other day my eighth-grader comes home and says her advisory class was spent registering on

I'm unfamiliar with "advisory class", what am I missing? (a quick web search gave conflicting reports). Also, now that I look at the ConnectEdu site, isn't 8th grade kind of inappropriate to be targeting any kids toward careers? Aren't kids in middle school supposed to be getting a rounded education so they can work toward their choice of many paths after graduating?

I told her to terminate her account and that I would speak to building administration. When we logged on, I saw no way to close the account.

Unbelievable. Could you please report back on this?

Then she said that as she was inputting the login (which included her student ID), the data fields were already populated with her race, age etc. My email popped up, but she was told to use her Gmail account.

Even more importantly, did/could you dig into this particular aspect further? This sounds like SPS had already given ConnectEdu your kid's (and your) information, previous to her "signing up". If so, have they given all our kids' data to this company?! Or do you think it's related to a program or service specific to your child. I suspect your district contact will say they did not give away your kids' data prior to her creating this account, but it's difficult to imagine a scenario where any kind of pre-populating like that could otherwise occur, unless the teacher typed it in as your kid was sitting there. It's difficult to prove without sitting in front of a computer while it's happening, but if the story you're relating here is accurate, there's something very fishy.

My last question is more of a reminder. You said "her Gmail account", which implies that you let your daughter use gmail. Is that really true? I know many parents are lax about this stuff, but I know you obviously care very much about privacy issues - especially with regards to your kid, and Google is the most relentless collector of personal data in the world (see this very post we're commenting on and the comment immediately above!). If you feel your middle schooler really needs access to email, there are many providers that don't make their living by harvesting their users' personal information.

This also comes back to the on-site teacher, who pushed her to user her personal email account. This teacher, and probably everyone doing this job in the district, needs to get educated on what is and is not acceptable. Pressuring middle schoolers to enter their personal information into a third party data collection system is not acceptable under any circumstances!
mirmac1 said…
All great questions dw and forgive me as I am still waiting for answers.

At my child's MS, advisory is essentially "homeroom". Most generic schoolwide efforts are conducted in homeroom.

I logged on as her and went to the account profile, figuring there would an "unsubscribe" button or whatever. Nothing. I have since learned that even JSCEE can't do it. They have to go to the vendor and it takes a week. Yeah, that's having control over third parties you give ed records to (a requirement under FERPA)

It appears her info self-populated because SPS IT handed it over beforehand. There was no consideration about parental consent. And this was for EVERY child, not just those in special programs.

I searched through recent years of board action and see no board action on, or contract with ConnectEDU. This despite being told that SPS has an agreement with the for-profit - that will eventually lead to eliminating the MS and HS guidance counselors. Who needs face-time with someone knowledgeable about your courses and college/credit options at that age, anyway?

Finally, my child rarely if ever uses her gmail account It is basically just a placeholder (email is so old school, now what with Instagram and Twitter). I also have various gmail accounts I use as aliases. But I am increasingly frustrated with Google's attempt to link ALL my accounts across various sites, along with my phone number. This is well-known to be their modus operandi, given people's reluctance to change phone numbers.

Thanks for confirming that it's time to switch her email address to something else entirely.

Will keep you informed. If anyone is concerned about the district's lax practices with your child's data, write the board and superintendent.
dw said…
mirmac1 said: It appears her info self-populated because SPS IT handed it over beforehand. There was no consideration about parental consent. And this was for EVERY child, not just those in special programs.

Am I understanding correctly that SPS has handed over personal data for every student in the district to ConnectEdu?! If so, THIS IS OUTRAGEOUS! If this is really true, there should be an entire thread on this, and it should be brought to the attention of each and every board member!

Please do continue to update on this. Thanks.
mirmac1 said…
I have confirmed that all her coursework and grades for the last three years are already on ConnectEDU, as is her birthday, address, and our home phone.

The site has a place for her to build a resume, find college loans "at attractive rates", and track job applications. Her standardized test scores and GPA will be automatically entered. There's a course catalog where she's supposed to plan her coursework. Here is their propaganda, complete with a video about the "crisis" in education.

Remember, she's in eighth-grade.

Is this the future of career counselor? Some bot? A LinkdIn for secondary students? You may recall that one of the exceptions in FERPA is if the district contracts out services it would otherwise perform.
dw said…
This is incredible. More questions for you:

1) Do you know whether the data was sent by your own school or by central administration?

I'm wondering because I'd like to know how widespread this problem is right now, and where to start plugging the leaks. If it's something initiated at a building level, that's the place I'd start right away. If it's central, does that mean that every student in the district (or maybe every middle/high school student) has already had their data given away to this shady firm?

2) I'm also wondering how they get a child's coursework, and what does that actually entail? Just test scores? Pre-assessments? Do they get copies of artwork and papers written by our kids? Some of those are very personal. Some of them are fiction, but might sound close enough to reality that they could be mistaken for a description of a fantasy (or dystopian) home life. It's enough to boggle the mind.

3) Was anything special required on your part to initiate the deletion of this account? If I were you I'd try to follow up and make sure the data actually gets deleted, not just the ability for you to sign in. Also, since you're actually got this process started, perhaps you could ask how we (others that care) can opt out before the same thing happens to us? Yes, that might be a scary question for them to answer, but it shouldn't be.
mirmac1 said…
Stay tuned. I've asked the district for more info....
dw said…
I'll keep checking back here, so post away when you learn more!
mirmac1 said…
See my comment on the Source/Fusion thread.

They still haven't got CDU to terminate my student's account.

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