THE BLOG
04/21/2014 03:43 pm ET | Updated Jun 21, 2014

Digital Parenting Should Include Google Apps for Education

You drop your child at the bus stop, or at school, make sure they have their lunch, and tell them to have a good day before you walk or drive away. When you ask them that afternoon how school was, they say, "Great! Some men from McDonald's came to class and gave us crayons. They watched us color to see what kinds of stuff we drew. I thought it was weird to have strangers watching me color, but the teacher and the principal said it was okay because they need to know what kind of toys to put in Happy Meals. Can we stop at McDonald's on the way home now?"

How would parents feel in that scenario -- especially if their child's school had not previously detailed for them information about how McDonald's would monitor their child for its own financial gain, in exchange for "free" crayons?

This is precisely what Google does with its Apps for Education (GAFE) online software suite that many students today use. Like the example above, the problem is that school administrators and teachers do not explain well enough to parents the agreements they sign with Google to use GAFE in their curriculums. Children certainly can't explain the complex legalese, either; they just know they're supposed to get a permission slip signed.

In my recent Huffington Post interview of SafeGov's Jeff Gould, I learned that, like they do with adults, Google uses data-mining tools to profile children who use GAFE, a suite of always-online tools that includes Gmail, Google Docs, YouTube, and other software. Worse, Google mines child data even when school IT administrators turn off GAFE's native advertising. In a recent filing in a case before the 9th Circuit, which Gould has covered and where Google has been accused of violating wiretapping laws in scanning user emails for commercial purposes, I learned that the search giant builds "surreptitious user models" -- a portrait of a user based on the content of their email messages and their web search history -- and it does not disclose this to anyone.

These user models help Google direct well-funded advertising messages to children who use GAFE when they use a Google product outside the core suite, and may continue to build on the child's behavioral profile throughout the rest of his or her life. That kind of "permanent record" is the bogeyman my parents once used to scare me into behaving well.

This should matter tremendously to parents. Not only are children more susceptible to advertising messages than adults -- Yale University studies have confirmed this -- but the adoption of Common Core standards, outdated FERPA regulations, and poor education about COPPA could combine to make children's permanent records public records. Children, in other words, are GAFE's product...not its consumers.

I have discovered that many parents -- even the digital natives who witnessed the dawn of the commercial Internet in their youth -- simply do not understand well enough how that commercial Internet works, how companies exploit various technologies to monetize users, including and especially children. As if exploitation of their children doesn't make them furious enough when I tell them what's happening in classrooms everywhere, you should see what happens when they learn about security risks. That's right: GAFE was found to be vulnerable to the recent Heartbleed super virus. How many of us are comfortable subjecting our children, their identities, and their behavioral profiles to exposure to hackers?

Some parents, though, have voiced concern about student privacy. A recent Common Sense Media survey (PDF) found that 90 percent of adults are concerned about companies with non-educational interests accessing student information (64 percent are "very concerned"), 89 percent of adults support tighter privacy and security standards in the cloud (which Google uses to power both GAFE and Chromebooks, which many schools have begun using for its low price), 77% of adults would outlaw the sale of student data to marketers, 74 percent would prohibit Internet companies from using students' browsing habits to develop targeted ads, and 70 percent would prohibit Google from building "user models" of children, either surreptitiously or transparently.

The Consortium for School Network, too, recently published a briefing book to help parents and administrators press technology providers for clearer answers about what data they collect, who has access to it, and for what purpose they intend to use it. These findings and resources should be helpful to anyone seeking more accountability from school districts and third-party vendors like Google, who provide "free" or inexpensive technology solutions to children, but remain tight-lipped when laymen start asking questions.

Is this really where we're headed -- the blind tracking, monitoring, and sale of how our children in the classroom by commercial "big data" enterprises just waiting for a chance to target our children? Your children's schools may already use GAFE or Chromebooks, but it is never too late to urge those school board members and school administrators to take proactive steps to protect child privacy. Right now, teachers and administrators are acting in parents' places, often against their wishes once they learn how the system works.

Takeaway tips:

• If your school is using GAFE or Chromebooks, ask the school for copies of the service agreement for both, as well as a complete set of terms and conditions.
• If your school is using GAFE or Chromebooks, ask the school for a detailed report on how they reached their decision to use Google products.
• If your school is merely considering using GAFE or Chromebooks, ask them to subject their decision to a vote of parents only after a representative from Google attends a town hall meeting and answers questions to parents' satisfaction.