SafeGovEU

By Jeff Gould, SafeGov.

In a surprise announcement on April 30, 2014, Google announced on its company blog that it would no longer “collect or use student data in Apps for Education services for advertising purposes.” Google also noted that it would make similar changes to its Google Apps for Government products. This announcement suggests that Google has been scanning, storing and monetizing student, business and government emails for years, which raises concerns about Google’s past privacy practices and their policies moving forward. This is a significant violation of the trust placed in the company by the schools and government agencies who signed contracts with the assurance that there would be “no ad-related scanning or processing” in Google Apps – language that Google once noted on their website.

“The gravity of this breach cannot be overlooked,” noted SafeGov.org president Jeff Gould. “Google has acknowledged that it has been systematically scanning the emails of some 30 million students as well as those of hundreds of thousands of federal, state and local government employees in the U.S. for an unknown length of time and for unspecified advertising purposes,” Gould added.

When Google first released its consolidated privacy policy two years ago, experts at SafeGov.org were among the first to express concern that this policy – which granted Google unlimited rights to data mine and use private data for its advertising business – was unsuitable for government users and schools. At the time, Google dismissed these concerns, noting that it had individual contracts with these customers that superseded its ad-friendly privacy policy. However, Google’s recent statement confirms that the company has been data mining its Google Apps for Education and Government users, regardless of what is stated in its contracts.

Google’s announcement leaves many important questions unanswered. Specifically, Google has the responsibility to address the following:

  • Google notes that it will now stop scanning student and government emails for advertising purposes. Exactly what kinds of ad scanning was Google doing before, and when will it delete from its servers the data and metadata obtained from users?
  • While Google says it will disable the option to show ads when users open their email in Google Apps for Education and Government, the company does not say that it will halt the data mining and profiling of user emails before the emails reach user inboxes. Has Google also stopped building profiles of its student and government email users?
  • Google’s promise to halt ad scanning for students and government workers applies to its Google Apps products only. However, they fail to mention its Chromebook and Android devices, which under the terms of Google’s privacy policy, are subject to same ad-targeting and user profiling. Will Google extend its no data mining pledge to all students and government employees who receive Chromebook or Android devices from their institutions?

We believe that Google needs to give complete answers to these questions and be forthright to all its customers. SafeGov.org will continue to work to ensure a broad public discussion around these issues, which is particularly important as more schools and government agencies around the world shift to the cloud.

Jeff Gould has 20 years of experience in technology publishing and IT market research. Jeff currently serves as the president of SafeGov Inc.

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