Chris Lema / CC BY 2.0

Most people know that Google mines user data for information that can help it improve advertising and search results, but they may not realize that an enormous amount of that personal information is coming from students in kindergarten through the 12th grade, according to the digital rights advocacy group Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF).

This month, EFF filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) alleging that Google is violating the “K-12 School Service Provider Pledge to Safeguard Student Privacy” that it signed in January by spying on as many as 40 million students, teachers and administrators who use the company’s Chromebook laptops.

“Parents are very concerned about their children’s privacy and do not want their personal information data-mined or used for targeted advertising,” Leonie Haimson, co-chair of Parent Coalition for Student Privacy, told Truthdig. “The FTC complaint against Google reinforces our conviction that far stronger laws and enforcement mechanisms are necessary to protect students from these sorts of harmful practices.”

According to the complaint, Google is tracking students with Chrome Sync, a feature of the Chrome Web browser that allows the sharing of bookmarks, browser histories and other data between computers that use the feature. Google is also monitoring students logged into educational Google accounts.

“Google can track all the activity of students as they use various Google services and products on Google domains (e.g. everything from Google Docs to YouTube),” Jeremy Gillula, a staff technologist at EFF, told Truthdig. “For a small subset of these services (i.e. Google Apps for Education), Google has committed to not feeding that data into an advertising profile; however, for services like YouTube, Blogger, News, and Books (just to name a few) Google feeds that data into its ‘interest-based’ advertising profile linked to each student account, by default.”

By signing the “K-12 Service Provider Pledge,” Google promised that it would not violate the privacy of students, and EFF points out that the FTC has taken such industry pledges seriously in the past. “Google signed on to the student privacy pledge, and its actions directly contradict that promise,” Gillula said. “As a result, Google’s actions constitute unfair and deceptive trade practices, since they’ve essentially promised one thing to the public, then gone and done a different thing.”

In its defense, Google has said the data it collects is not tied to any specific, identifiable source when it is used.

“If data shows that millions of people are visiting a webpage that is broken, that site would be moved lower in the search results,” the company explained in a blog post. “This is not connected to any specific person nor is it used to analyze student behaviors.” Essentially the company says it’s merely improving its service by using aggregated browsing data.

Gillula disagrees. “We would point out that some URLs can be tied to specific individuals, in and of themselves — for example, think of the URLs you click to confirm your email address when you sign up for a new account somewhere online,” he said. “That URL is unique to you.”

In the past, Google has paid dearly for running afoul of the FTC. In 2011, it paid a civil penalty of $22.5 million in an FTC dispute over a claim “it misrepresented to users of Apple Inc.’s Safari Internet browser that it would not place tracking ‘cookies’ or serve targeted ads to those users, violating an earlier privacy settlement between the company and the FTC,” according to the complaint.

Though the tech giant does not appear to be involved in some kind of sinister plot to control the minds of our youth, it does appear to have violated a pledge, and there could be serious consequences — both for the company itself and for the millions of students across the country who use its services and whose personal information could be misused.

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