Commentary

Mississippi Attorney General Sues Google Over Student Privacy

Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood, who previously battled Google over piracy allegations, is now suing the company for allegedly violating its privacy promises by collecting data about students who use its educational apps.

"Google tracks, records, uses, and saves the online activity of Mississippi's children, all for the purpose of processing student data to build a profile, which in turn aids its advertising business," Hood alleges in a lawsuit filed last week in Lowndes County, Mississippi.

“Through this lawsuit, we want to know the extent of Google’s data mining and marketing of student information to third parties,” he said Tuesday in a statement. "I don’t think there could be any motivation other than greed for a company to deliberately keep secret how it collects and uses student information.”

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Hood accuses Google of running afoul of the Mississippi Consumer Protection Act by "failing to disclose its secret acts of data mining."

His theory is that Google unfairly secured contracts with Mississippi's public schools, and wrongly gained an advantage over competitors who "offered similar services without data mining."

He also alleges that Google is violating a promise the company made in January 2015, when it signed the student privacy pledge. That pledge, developed by the industry-funded think tank Future of Privacy Forum, prohibits "school service providers" from collecting data from students except for authorized educational purposes, or as permitted by parents and students; the pledge also requires companies to destroy students' personal data after it's no longer needed for authorized purposes.

Despite the lawsuit's allegations about data mining, Hood acknowledges in an online FAQ that he doesn't yet know what data Google is collecting, or how the company uses it.

Hood's complaint repeats some of allegations initially made in late 2015 by the digital rights group Electronic Frontier Foundation. That organization said in a Federal Trade Commission complaint that Google gathers data from Chromebooks, and also amasses data from students who are logged in to their Google for Education accounts, even when students surf the Web for non-academic purposes. The result, according to the EFF, is that Google "invariably collects, maintains, and uses for its own benefit" a host of private information from students.

After the EFF unveiled the complaint, Google updated its privacy policy to clarify that it doesn't use any information associated with users' Apps for Education Account for ad targeting.

But according to the EFF, Google's policies remain problematic. The company still collects data about students who are using non-Apps for Education services, the EFF said in October. "Google is also still collecting a huge amount of information from students for other purposes, including device information (such as hardware models, operating system versions, and unique device identifiers) and log information (such as queries, system activity, and hardware settings). Even if it’s not using that data to target ads, it’s not clear why Google thinks it should be allowed to keep and retain that data for anything other than directly providing a service to the [Google Apps for Education] user."

Hood and Google previously fought each other in court over "illegal" content in the search results and on YouTube. In late 2014, Google asked a federal judge to issue a restraining order barring Hood from following through on a threat to sue the company over unlawful content, included material that infringes copyright. Google also sought a restraining order barring Hood from attempting to enforce a subpoena seeking millions of documents relating to piracy in the search results and on YouTube, among other material.

Last July, Google agreed to dismiss the lawsuit. The company said at the time that it would work together with Hood to address unlawful content.

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