WEBER COUNTY — Students across Weber County use many of the same Google tools at school that students use in the state of New Mexico, which is suing Google for student privacy violations.
Both Ogden and Weber School Districts — which together serve about 44,000 K-12 students across Weber County — use Google for Education’s G Suite. Similar to G Suite for businesses, G Suite for Education includes tools like Gmail, Google Calendar, Drive, Docs and Google Classroom, a learning management system that allows students to organize and submit their school work.
This is the same suite of tools that is at the center of New Mexico’s lawsuit.
New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas alleges in the lawsuit, filed last Thursday, that Google “uses its products to collect large quantities of valuable personal information, without their parents’ consent, from children under 13 who are often required by their schools to use these services,” according to a press release from his office.
The information Google has collected, the statement says, includes “geolocation information, websites visited, terms searched for on Google and YouTube, contact lists, voice recordings and more.” This violates the Federal Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, the statement says.
According to the lawsuit, Google’s data collection extends to children’s online activity on personal devices.
When students log in to a school or personal Chromebook, which are Google-made laptops or tablets, Google’s default is to turn on a Chrome browser sync function. All of a student’s online activity on this synced browser is uploaded to the student’s G Suite account, the lawsuit alleges. Parents and students can alter the account’s settings so Google is not able to see that information, the lawsuit says, but this option is “off by default and buried in settings that parents likely never see.”
Google did not respond immediately to the Standard-Examiner’s request for comment, but a statement from Google spokesperson Jose Castaneda has been widely quoted in other outlets.
“These claims are factually wrong,” Castaneda says in the statement. “G Suite for Education allows schools to control account access and requires that schools obtain parental consent when necessary. We do not use personal information from users in primary and secondary schools to target ads. School districts can decide how best to use Google for Education in their classrooms and we are committed to partnering with them.”
Ogden and Weber districts don’t just use Google tools, they’re Utah’s only two Google Reference Districts, which means they’re experts at using the tools in educational settings.
Weber became a reference district in February 2018, while Ogden earned the distinction later that year, in September. As reference districts, they commit to sharing their expertise with other schools and districts interested in learning more about Google tools.
Davis School District, while it uses a variety of technology tools, is a partner district of Microsoft.
Weber district would not comment on the specifics of the suit against Google, given its pending status, said Lane Findlay, spokesperson for the district, in an email.
“We have not been in touch with Google to formally discuss any aspect of the lawsuit as it does not pertain to us,” Findlay said. “If any of the accusations are proven in court, then we would revisit our partnership with Google.”
Every student in Weber schools is issued a G Suite account, Findlay said, and the district has over 30,000 Chromebooks. That number is close to Weber’s enrollment, which stands at about 32,600, because the district aims to have one device for each student, he said.
As part of student registration, parents and students are informed that the district uses Google products, Findlay said, but the district does not require a parent permission form for students to use them.
When it comes to G Suite, Ogden School District “uploads the minimal amount of directory information needed to provide educational services for all students,” said Casey Bowden, chief technical officer for the district, in an email. This includes a student’s first name, last name and student ID number.
“The Google accounts that (the district) provisions and manages for student use are entirely separate from any personal Google accounts that a student might create,” he continued.
Ogden students have regular opportunities to use mobile devices, many of which are Chromebooks, according to earlier reporting from the Standard-Examiner. In about four years, the district will likely have a mobile device for every student.