In Children, Photo sharing, Privacy

Did you know that schools around the world have opened up their doors to Google and given it access to student data? Google proudly states it attracts 90 million+ educators and students to use its G-Suite, 40 million+ using Google Classroom and 30 million+ using Chromebooks, and many of our State Education Departments have announced partnerships with Google.

“Who cares?” I hear you ask, “Isn’t this just innovation and getting our kids ready for the real world?”. Well, if you’re a parent or grandparent of a school student today then you should care because this affects your child’s future. If you are a teacher or admin professional at a school then you should care as this is part of providing a ‘duty of care’. And if you’re a Principal of a school, you have a legal responsibility to care.

More on Google…

Google and other big techs are currently fighting privacy battles on every front, with another consumer class action (from France) announced last week. And it won’t be long before the legal lens turns towards how these companies are handling kids’ data!

As adults, we have earned the knocks and scars to make our own decisions and generally know the potential consequences that may result – but our kids, on the other hand, have not, are vulnerable and need our protection. Not one of us today have lived a life of complete online surveillance – we only saw it in sci-fi movies – but now its time to put ourselves in the shoes of our kids who know nothing else.

Last week YouTube (owned by Google) was placed under US Federal investigation for failing to protect kids and improperly collecting their data. And this week, New Zealand Justice Minister said Google is giving NZ the middle finger in its failure to suppress personal details.

Google’s CEO Sundar Pichai last month wrote in the New York Times “privacy should not be a luxury good”. I find it ironic that the CEO of a company who has played such a major role in us all losing our digital privacy, is now stating the obvious! Privacy should be a human right for all humans, not a privilege, and Google is a major reason why we have this problem! Yet, while Facebook gets criticised in the press daily for its illegal practices, Google – who doesn’t say much by default – stays relatively unscathed.

However, since this article, others have started to make comment. A New York Times author wrote how Silicon Valley is “very excited to fix big problems, as long as they’re not problems that they created”.

Google has also created a big problem for our kids via mass infiltration of schools through a theme of “innovation” – and with the support of governments – and offering a “free” Google Apps for Education (GAFE) suite plus low-cost, low-frill Chromebooks. These free platforms don’t actually come without a cost: if you don’t pay for the product, you are the product! Companies, like Google, are in a good position to exploit sectors like Education who are known for ongoing cost-constraints, enabling them to get their brands into the hands of children – historically regarded as a good marketing tactic ‘from cradle to grave’.

Over the past four years in the US alone, Google has admitted to “scanning and indexing” student email messages sent using GAFE, and data mining student users for commercial gain when they use their accounts for non-educational purposes. Google also collects student/family data to target ads through related services outside the GAFE suite, such as YouTube for Schools and Bloggers.

GAFE ‘apparently’ protects students from being advertised to by Google, but once they go outside of GAFE tools – like when a student watches a YouTube video – the user is no longer protected. How many students would be doing this every day at school, and how well are schools manning Google’s collection of this data?

As parents, can we do anything to stop this from happening?

Yes, but we need to act now.

Just a few weeks ago the NSW Education Department announced that unless parents opt-in to their child’s photos being used on social media, their child could not participate in big school events. Forced consent is not consent, and this clearly illustrates privacy will become a luxury item at our schools. Yet both public and private schools are well placed to protect a student’s personal data – by recognising the risks that come with using social media in an education context, and by insisting on a privacy impact assessment (PIA) for any new technologies or platforms before contracts are signed and before the personal data of our kids disappears down a digital rabbit hole.

Just quietly, I am not aware of a single published PIA or other privacy review done in relation to Google’s new offering to Australian schools. And yet our State education departments are entering into partnerships with these guys? I’m not convinced that ‘taking Google’s word’ for it (via a convoluted mass of privacy policy documents and product terms) is enough.

Nicole Stephensen, a privacy expert and Principal of Ground Up Consulting, says “When using technologies, platforms and apps that involve student personal information, schools are responsible for acting in accordance with the privacy law, which includes making sure the provider they have chosen is on the right side of the privacy law too.”

I’d say 12 months ago parents were vaguely aware of the consequences of technology use at schools and the effect this could have on their kid’s privacy. Today, with the global media attention given to data misuse, the increase in school data breaches and the strengthening of global privacy regulations, parents are starting to get smarter on the direct harm caused when personal data (including photos) of their children are “shared” or published online. That said, many parents are still unaware of the level of infiltration global tech companies have in schools today – many (like my family) were not even asked!.

Google says privacy shouldn’t be a luxury item, but it is selling products cheaply to schools so it can support a business model that relies heavily on attracting large numbers of users and collecting rich data sets. At the same time, public schools via education departments are being forced to use these providers. At what point will they not be able to protect poor families who may be dealing with sensitive situations like fostering or AVOs? Must these families pull their kids out of all school events and opt them out of technology use as the only way to protect them? Is this not exclusivity and discrimination in the highest form?

Another recent New York Times article quoted a senior fellow at the Future of Privacy Forum’s Education Privacy Project, Monica Bulger, stating students can’t opt out of Google: “It’s a binary choice for the kids,” Bulger said. “A teacher told me years ago, ‘If you want to opt out of using the Google education suite, then you’ll also need to opt out of fourth grade.’”

Speak out with me

I am very concerned about our kids’ data getting into the hands of companies like Google and Facebook, and not knowing where that data is then shared (i.e. data brokers, black market, insurance companies?).

Although Google and others are starting to talk the “privacy talk”, many experts are viewing this as a response to the regulatory debate focused on breaking up these companies, versus wanting to really protect customers. The fact is, when Google is earning so much money from advertising, why would they completely change their business model to now start protecting us?

When my daughter was at Kindy even eight years ago, schools, clubs and other child-safe organisations were unaware how they were unknowingly breaking the law by keenly sharing student data in social media and other online channels so they could be seen as ‘hip’, ‘cool’ or ‘innovative’. During this phase, my family suffered from our own child’s photo being shared by her school inappropriately without our consent. That’s why I started my company back in 2012. But privacy was not a hot topic back then. I was regarded as un-innovative and the topic became a trigger for clients to close the door on future discussions with responses like “our parents don’t care about privacy” or “when someone gets hurt, we will call you”.

We have, however, remained 100 per cent committed to privacy and will continue to fight this battle on behalf of all Australian schools and parents who still believe all children should have a right to privacy at school – no matter their socioeconomic status! Google and other large tech companies have a place in society, but not when it comes to leveraging our children’s digital identities.

Please join me in writing (I provide a suggested letter template below) to your local member, to your State Education Minister and to your school, asking them what practices they have put in place to ensure your child’s personal data is not being inappropriately shared with Google and other tech companies who will eventually use it for their own commercial purpose. Make a difference in your child’s future today!

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