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Google Apps: Saving Schools Money or Paying With Your Kid's Privacy?

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While your children are home or on school break, you may notice that they are using Google services to surf the Web, send email, post home videos and work on school reports and projects. This is because schools across the country have signed up millions of students for something called Google Apps for Education, a group of services that exist "in the cloud" and enable students to access their e-mail, calendar, documents, and presentation materials from any computer with an Internet connection.

Cloud computing services like Google Apps can offer important benefits for your kids. Documents and information can be accessed at any time from any Internet-connected device, making it easy for students to start a project on a classroom computer and continue it on a tablet or computer at home. Teachers and students also can access and edit a single document in real time, allowing for a more interactive and collaborative learning environment.

A key reason schools are signing up for Google Apps for Education is that Google claims to provide these services at no cost. But these services are not entirely free. Did you know that schools may be "paying" for these services with your kid's privacy?

Let me explain. When a school signs up for Google Apps for Education, the school selects an administrator to manage the use of the services by its students. This administrator is responsible for assigning each student an email address and password, which the student must use to access his or her account. In this video from Google's help center, Google warns that this administrator also has access to all of the data that the student stores in his or her Google account, "including your emails, contacts, even changing your password and other information" -- in other words, not just your kid's schoolwork.

By providing school administrators with unfiltered access to student accounts, Google Apps for Education can put the privacy of your kids and family at risk. If your child is using Google Apps broadly, the school administer can read his or her private letters, access calendar appointments such as doctor visits, or view contacts, photos and videos that have been uploaded to the account. And if your family members share a computer at home and your child forgets to log out of his or her Google Apps account, the documents, emails, and pictures of others could end up being monitored as well.

Even if you trust your child's school (and we all want to), consider this: a few years ago, a federal lawsuit was filed after parents learned that school district officials outside Philadelphia had used remotely activated webcams in school-issued laptops to spy on students and their families at home. Some of the images captured by these cameras caught students and their family members as they undressed. Similarly compromising information could be uploaded to a student's Google Apps account.

So what can you do to protect the privacy and safety of your children and family?

Ask questions and demand answers. If your child's school uses Google Apps for Education, find out who is the administrator for the account and ask what policies and procedures are in place to make sure your child's data is not misused.

Encourage the school to consider alternatives that are more protective of privacy. Google's track record on privacy is not great. Ask school officials whether they considered other cloud service providers that are more protective of user privacy and that they consider making a change.

Have your child create and use a personal account for non-school activities. If your child must continue using Google Apps for school, create a separate, personal account for non-school activities that is not managed through Google Apps. Microsoft and Yahoo! both provide personal cloud services for children and teens that could be great substitutes.

Always sign out. Again if your child must continue using Google Apps for school, insist they create a personal account outside of Google Apps (as the above referenced tip) and remind them to always completely log-out of Google Apps for Education when they are done working in it so there is no risk of another family member sitting at the computer and inviting in virtual strangers.

More than ever, caring for your children requires understanding what services they are using online. Find out whether your kids are using Google Apps for Education, and, if so, ask the right questions to ensure they are protected. Be an educated parent and be proactive. This helps you and your child insure your privacy for the future. Keep in mind, privacy is becoming priceless. It requires protection like your child does.

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