College Students Are Vulnerable To Google’s Spying And They Don’t Even Know It

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 Has your school “Gone Google”? Are you a college student who’s been forced to use Google services because your school has decided to adopt Google Apps for Education? Are you an administrator who thought it would be best to give away your students’ information to Google so that you can save your institution some money and time? Well then, please keep reading – there are important things you should seriously reconsider.

For those who don’t know, Google offers businesses and educational institutions (kindergarten all the up to college) the ability to allow Google to run services for them. For businesses this comes with a monetary cost, but for educational institutions they can use Google’s services for “free”.

Google Apps for Education allows colleges, such as Brown University, to use Google’s email, chat, videos, docs, etc. The institutions are allowed to use Google’s services under their own domain name – so you’re basically using Google but with your college’s name attached instead. The supposed advantages of switching over to Google run services is that it offers these schools more storage space, it saves them money, it saves on time, and other resources. For schools who don’t have high functioning systems, Google might even allow them do more by offering students greater online capabilities that their school probably couldn’t do on their own.

But – do the added capabilities to your school’s system and placing the burden of upkeep onto Google really benefit students in the long run? Does diminishing the privacy and giving away the personal data of your students to a company like Google a smart thing to do? Is it wise to hand over all that personal data to Google’s cloud storage just because it saves you a bit of time and money? I sure don’t think so.

In a video Google uploaded to promote its Apps for Education services, an employee of Brown University admits:

“You know, you can’t neglect the fact that we signed a zero dollar contract. It’s awfully nice to save money and still provide excellent functionality and excellent IT service”

And this is the reason Google claims it offers free services to schools:

“Google Apps for Education is free. We plan to keep the core offering of Google Apps for Education free. This includes user accounts for future incoming students. As you may know, Google was founded by a research project at Stanford University, and this is just one way we can give back to the educational community.”

Aww, how sweet! How considerate of Google to do something as charitable as that! But you know what, it sounds too good to be true…what’s the catch? Let’s keep digging…

It might be nice and all to save your school some money, but you’re putting your students at grave risk without their explicit consent. Schools are giving up students’ information to a company who will use that information to target advertisements to those students. How is that ethical or responsible? Remember that Google does not target ads to students before their graduation – but upon graduation, Google can do whatever they want with those students’ information.

Okay, for example, a student at Harvard University has an email account run by Google Apps for Education. During the time that student is enrolled as a current and active Harvard University student, their email information will not be used to target personalized advertisements at them. However, that student will still be subjected to Google’s spying for “market research” purposes. Upon graduation, that student now has a Google run Harvard email service that is completely been let loose to Google. Google may now begin targeting ads to this student.

Students who are under an educational institution’s contract with Google do not have any additional privacy protections of any significance than the average Google user. They are still very vulnerable to privacy violations and their personal data is harvested by Google without their knowledge whatsoever. Students just assume that their email address with their college is between them and their college. But there is a third party listening in on everything – and that’s Google.

Andrew Weis, who works for a consulting firm whose expertise includes cybersecurity, wrote a piece in The Chronicle of Higher Education called “Does Google’s new privacy policy protect student privacy in the cloud“. He writes,

“The problem is that the privacy rights afforded to educational institutions through existing contracts are often hard to distinguish from the terms and conditions offered to regular consumers. For example, Harvard University’s home site for its Google Apps for Education service refers viewers to Google’s basic terms and conditions and further claims that the university has ‘no authority to enforce these standards’…university and college-based users may find themselves just as vulnerable as the average consumer”

Just think this through seriously. Think about the treasure trove of personal data Google has access to. Think about all the sensitive information that gets exchanged in those college emails. Students use their college’s email address for all sorts of things, including, but definitely not limited to: discussing assignments with their professors, they use it to retrieve their grades, and they use it communicate with student clubs they’re involved in.

Google has access to students’ timetables, courses, social security numbers, and every single sensitive data they exchange through those emails. Many students use their school’s email address exclusively for the most sensitive college related correspondence. Why on Earth would anybody let Google have access to this information?

Mr Weis writes,

“Though some universities, including Harvard, actively discourage students from using their student accounts to transmit personally identifiable or confidential information, students can and do transmit such information on a regular basis. Professors routinely notify students of their grades on individual assignments via e-mail, and students may receive preliminary notice of disciplinary measures via their accounts.”

It should give you pause, too, that Google releases personal data to law enforcement at increasingly high rates than ever before. In the last 6 months, official requests for personal data of American Google users skyrocketed by 29% from its already high level. When Google gives this data up to law enforcement, it does not notify users that their data has been compromised.

Students are vulnerable to this sharing of information. Google’s new privacy policy also makes it easier for law enforcement to retrieve more information from Google. Marc Rotenberg, director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, explains:

“Let’s say you have subpoena of records for someone who might have posted something to YouTube. Traditionally, you might limit that subpoena to YouTube activity, because that’s what is relevant to the investigation. What Google has done by combining user data is basically make all of their activity on Google potentially relevant to an investigation”

Completely transitioning to Google Apps for Education might give these colleges more functionality, more storage, and “free” services – but you have to remember that you are not Google’s customer, you are Google’s product. Schools are irresponsibly exposing their students to Google’s tracking and students are paying for it. They are not paying for it monetarily via increases in their tuition fees – but they are definitely paying for it.

The currency Google uses and loves so much is personal data – not dollars. Google later monetizes that personal data at exorbitant profits. Over 90% of Google’s revenues come from advertising and the company rakes in about $40 billion per year. Students are paying to use Google Apps by forfeiting their privacy. Schools are selling the souls, so to speak, of these students in exchange for the ability to do a bit more. This is not a fair trade – far from it. At least with increased tuition fees a student can rest assured knowing their information is safe. Now that Google knows every single thing about them, the adverse ramifications of these schools’ decision to adopt Google Apps for Education can haunt them…well…forever.

Moreover, this lack of privacy has even deeply concerned nearly three dozen state attorneys general who have said that different levels of government are reevaluating whether or not to continue using Google run services. They even said that all the data Google collects is enormously susceptible to identity theft. In a letter to Google over a week ago, they wrote:

“Those consumers who remain in the Google ecosystem may be making more of their personal information vulnerable to attack from hackers and identity thieves. Our offices litigate cases of identity fraud with regularity and it seems plain to us that Google’s privacy policy changes, which suggest your company’s intent to create richer personal data profiles, pose the risk of much more damaging cases of identity theft and fraud when that data is compromised, a risk that will grow as instances of computer hacking grow. With this newly consolidated bank of personal data, we foresee potentially more severe problems arising from any data breach”

Educational institutions have an important responsible to keep their students safe and they need to handle their privacy in the utmost care. Letting Google have access to your students’ personal data might mean you get to spend less dollars maintaining your own system, it might be more convenient, it might save you more time – but, in the long run, it’s definitely not worth it. Students are unwitting victims of their college’s decision to implement Google applications into their systems and it is the students who are paying the ultimate price.

To find out if your school has “Gone Google” – click here

Contact your school’s administration and let your concerns be heard. Tell Google to mind its own business – not yours.

For more information:

The Chronicle, “Does Google’s New Policy Really Protect Student Privacy in the Cloud?” – click here

The Hill, “Google privacy policy remains a cause for concern” – click here

Mobiledia, “Could Governments Track Citizens After Google’s Privacy Change?” – click here

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One thought on “College Students Are Vulnerable To Google’s Spying And They Don’t Even Know It

  1. […] Earlier, I wrote more about how some schools (kindergarten all the way up to college) are putting their students’ privacy in jeopardy by implementing Google Apps for Education into their systems. To read more on that – please click here. […]

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