CREDIT: AP Photo
Google said it has stopped reading emails for millions of student Gmail accounts for ads after students and teachers sued the tech company earlier this year, according to a company blog post.
Google was scanning the email accounts of over 30 million underage student users worldwide who used its Google Apps for Education service, a free online toolkit for college and K–12 educators and students, The Wall Street Journal reported. The plaintiffs asserted that Google not only scanned emails but used the students’ email content to build secret profiles of each individual that could be used for advertising.
The complaint lodged by students and teachers in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California said Google’s email scanning violated state and federal wiretap and privacy laws because the students were under 18. The practice may have also run afoul of the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act of 1974, which protects minor students private records, according to Education Week. Google uses the same scanning technology for regular Gmail account users.
Some schools have steered clear of the toolkit out of concern for students’ data. A Houston school district recently turned down Google’s education apps, citing mistrust in Google’s intentions. “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,” Lenny Scad, a chief technology officer for Houston’s Independent School District, told Education Week.
“From day one, we turned off ads by default in Apps for Education services,” a Google spokeswoman told ThinkProgress. “The changes announced are just a continued evolution of our efforts to provide the best experience for our users, including students.”
During the court proceedings, Google maintained that it didn’t actively advertise to the students in or outside the apps, and that it only collected email data. That data, however, theoretically could have been used for ads outside of the apps. Google updated its privacy policies for the education apps and, in a blog post Wednesday, said it permanently disabled its ads program for the apps service. The company also said it will make similar changes to its other apps services for businesses and government in the future.
This iteration of Google’s email snooping is the latest in the company’s long battle with privacy concerns. On top of the California students’ suit, Google has been fending off class-action lawsuits for scanning the emails of more than 400 million Gmail customers for targeted ad campaigns. Google was outed along with Apple and Microsoft for reading and sharing email content through a loophole in its privacy policies.
It’s become virtually impossible to keep Internet companies from collecting your personal data: Google alone collects millions of users’ data through its search engine, social network, Google Plus, and Android software for mobile devices. The company is also currently awaiting a U.S. Supreme Court decision on whether collecting private data through open Wi-Fi networks without permission for its Google Maps service violates wiretap laws.
This post was updated with the below statement from Google saying that they intended to completely disable the advertising function for its apps services: “From day one, we turned off ads by default in Apps for Education services. The changes announced are just a continued evolution of our efforts to provide the best experience for our users, including students.”