Students Sue Google For Monitoring Their Emails
In a challenge to one of Google’s more controversial practices, a group of students in California are suing Google, claiming that the company’s monitoring of Gmail violates federal and state privacy laws.
The U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California is currently hearing the complaint from nine students whose emails were subject to Google surveillance because Gmail is a component of Apps for Education. Apps for Education is a suite of free, web-based education tools that has some 30 million users worldwide, most of whom are students under 18 exposed to the software via their schools.
A Google rep told Education Week that the company scans and indexes emails from all Apps for Education users. The company uses the data for potential advertising, among other purposes.
Education Week speculates that the case could have “major implications” for how the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act [FERPA] is interpreted. FERPA, which was issued in 1974, ensures the privacy of records of students under the age of 18. The Department of Education’s recent guidance on the issue also appears to indirectly state that Google’s Gmail practices run afoul of FERPA.
If successful, that could lead to a payment to millions of Gmail users. However, in a victory for Google, U.S. District Judge Lucy Koh in San Jose, Calif., on Tuesday declined to combine other related suits against Google’s Gmail on similar grounds into one class-action suit.
Google’s surveillance of Gmail for advertising purposes has raised hackles among privacy advocates. In particular, the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) points out that even if Gmail users agree to Google’s terms, that doesn’t mean that non-subscribers who email with them do. “Non-subscribers have not consented and indeed may not even be aware that their communications are being analyzed or that a profile may be compiled of him or her,” states an FAQ on EPIC on the subject. EPIC also takes issue with Google’s ability to compile a detailed profile of a Gmail user by linking their Gmail data with cookies used by Google’s search engine. Google has said that it doesn’t cross-reference such data.
Microsoft has also criticized Google’s Gmail practices in its Scroogled campaign, contrasting Google’s data mining with Microsoft’s Outlook, which doesn’t use email data to serve users ads.