back to article Google slammed over its 'free' school service

Two Swedish researchers have torn into Google's free school service, accusing the online giant of purposefully misleading users in order to continue profiting from the sale of children's data. Maria Lindh and Jan Nolin from the University of Borås have published a research paper [note: paid access] that digs into the policies …

  1. Graham Marsden
    Unhappy

    And is anyone surprised?

    With Google, Facebook et al, you *are* the product...

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: And is anyone surprised?

      Right, but it shouldn't be legal. We need to tear up all the "safe harbour" nonsense, and put the squeeze on the privacy invaders.

      I know the yanks won't like it, but its high time we get some serious consumer protection, to protect us against "free" trojan horses. Shooting yourself in the privacy foot should be way harder than ticking a box saying you agree.

      ( Untick the box if you don't wish to be data-raped: ☑ )

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: And is anyone surprised?

        I totally agree that we need transparency over how Google et al use their users' data. But it should equally hardly be a surprise to anyone, and certainly not a school board, that a commercial organisation can't possibly supply its services free of charge without having some otter way of recouping its costs and ultimately profiting.

        1. Whitter
          Flame

          Re: And is anyone surprised?

          If you had to pay for the software they'd still sell your data.

          Maximum profits are the only target,

        2. Chika
          Big Brother

          Re: And is anyone surprised?

          If Google was supplying services under a given condition then it is up to Google to honour that condition, not for the school board to try to second-guess what Google might be up to in the background. If Google could not supply the service without slurping, then they should have said so when the contract was offered so that the school board could weigh the risks.

          What this all effectively means is that the next time that Google offers anything "free-of-charge", the proposed beneficiaries will probably run in the opposite direction (or at least pin Google down in the fine print so they can't try this stunt again)

      2. Old Used Programmer

        Re: And is anyone surprised?

        As an American (aka "Yank"), while my government and US based businesses would be rather unhappy with what you propose, not only do I think you should go ahead and do it, but I would hope it would spread over here, too.

      3. Mark 85 Silver badge

        Re: And is anyone surprised?

        I know the yanks won't like it, but its high time we get some serious consumer protection, to protect us against "free" trojan horses

        I can't speak for the rest of the people here in the States, but I believe most would agree that some serious protection is needed and not the lip service we've been getting from our government minions who are doing the corporate's bidding.

      4. adnim

        Re: And is anyone surprised?

        ( Untick the box if you don't wish to be data-raped: ☑ ) That is opt out

        This is opt in: ( Tick the box if you wish to be data-raped: ☐ ) This should be the default.

    2. FuzzyWuzzys

      Re: And is anyone surprised?

      Have to say the title suggested "bears", "woods" and "defacation" before I'd even begun the article!

      1. Wommit

        Re: And is anyone surprised?

        I always thought that it was the Bear who was Catholic and the Pope who ... err ... maybe I've been wrong all this time.

        1. Stoneshop Silver badge
          Coat

          Re: And is anyone surprised?

          Don't shoot the pope before you've sold the fur?

  2. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Confusing

    But, the authors argue, Google is able to say it does not sell its users' "data" – but it is not the day-to-day data it profits from, but rather the longer-term "monitoring of behavior" where it creates "algorithmic identities of individual users" by combining collected and personal information.

    Does this mean that Google does not create tracking profile of the users, but still shows ads related to queries...?

    One thing is certain: The goal of terms and conditions is not to offer any guarantee to users, but to protect the company from lawsuits.

    1. Joe Werner Silver badge

      Re: Confusing

      I understand / interpret that as "google does not sell their poorly crafted essays but builds up the profiles." As that profile is created by algorithms of alphabet / Google, this is not "user created data" (such as holiday snaps or somesuch)...

    2. Charlie Clark Silver badge

      Re: Confusing

      The key issue will be whether they really are working with "personally identifiable information". This isn't clear from the article.

      If they are aggregating the data and creating profiles for "pupils in Sweden" or elsewhere then they may well be in the clear. This is valuable data in itself but different in nature to profiles of individual users. It's like the metadata they get from all our more or less anonymous searches but on steroids: "projects on Harry Potter in Sweden are popular" could be of considerable value to the publishers.

      The other part of the business model is simply getting people hooked on using their services so that they will find it easier to keep using them or pay for premium services. But this is no different to traditional "educational discount" policies.

  3. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Sad day for Mankind

    - Feel sad after reading that.... But perhaps the sadder thing is, it probably won't lead to a single person dumping Google for DuckDuckGo or Startpage etc...

    - Growing up post the space race, the future seemed so bright and Jetsons optimistic, with hover cars and domestic bots everywhere.

    - But instead things are darker, closer to Blake's-7 inspired hidden-concentrated-power. The kind that only delivers orgasms to authors of TTIP / TPP contracts etc.

    - Even Tim-Berners-Lee doesn't sound optimistic about his baby anymore, calling it Spynet.... And global news confirms the worst, perpetual long-term stagnate growth.

    - Its like the internet is totally dominated by The-Wolf-of-Wall-Street types... Where its your duty to monetize your granny or be a total loser.

    - Uber is a good example, with its spy-tracking of critics and one-night stand analysis equal to some kind of sociopathic disorder.

    - The net should be heralding cosmic human collaboration, but somehow I don't even see it helping us conquer space, never mind ourselves...

  4. Neoc

    Hmmm.... a GAFE gaffe?

  5. Not Terry Wogan

    Good to get further confirmation

    I looked into GAFE in some detail when my son started at a school that uses it, and came to similar conclusions as it appears the Swedish report authors did.

    Gently and politely flagged it up with the school - just saying that they should consider informing parents that there may be privacy implications for students. It resulted in my being summoned to the principal's office like a naughty schoolboy, and treated like a certified tinfoil-hat wearing nutter. I also appear to have been blackballed from serving on the Board.

    As usual with computer security and privacy issues, it's enormously disheartening. Few have any kind of awareness, and even fewer care.

  6. MachDiamond Silver badge

    Heinlein nailed it years ago

    TANSTAAFL - There Ain't No Such Thing As A Free Lunch.

    If you are getting something for free (or below cost), you are the product.

  7. Winkypop Silver badge
    Facepalm

    It's Google

    Of course they are doing shit with your data.

  8. Flocke Kroes Silver badge

    The strangest bit

    Google could have written a privacy policy along the lines of 'Google will mine the data extensively and use the results for profit and drowning cute kittens'. Dozens of people would have read the start, a few would reach the end, and the one that cared only went to Google to read the privacy policy and had no intention of using the service anyway.

    If you do not want Google to spy on you, use a different search engine. If you do not want anyone to spy on your internet activity, do not own a cell phone or use the internet. (This behaviour is considered conclusive evidence of terrorist activity.)

    Other people have the right to make their minds up for themselves. If they want to exchange loss of privacy for search results, that is their choice. If they could not be bothered to read a privacy policy, that is their choice too.

    Google may well deserve a legal kicking a misleading privacy policy. Making 'free' services illegal in the name of privacy might stop the 'free', but it wont stop the spying. If governments cannot spy on you through the companies you interact with then they will have to do it themselves. I really do not want them to waste more money on another big IT project.

    (Please take a look at the tails privacy focused OS. If enough people go there, they cannot imprison us all for suspicion of not voting for Theresa May.)

    1. SImon Hobson Silver badge

      Re: The strangest bit

      > If you do not want Google to spy on you, use a different search engine.

      You missed the point entirely here.

      The article is nothing at all to do with using Google's search engine - it's about schools forcing their pupils and staff to use Google's education management offering. There's nothing inherently wrong with using a cloud based management system - but in this case it's one of those "what's the cost" things you need to look at. Google has, it appears, gone out of it's way to give a false impression of how it uses users' information - effectively (as pointed out above) they won't mine the contents of Johnny's essay, but they sure as hell are going to record his online activities, build a profile on him, and sell services to others based on that profile.

      THAT'S WHAT GOOGLE DOES

      Even this isn't all that much of a problem IF it's done with understanding of the consequences - AND parents have the opportunity to understand the ramifications and opt out. But it isn't. It's being mis-sold to educators by lying about what Google actually do, and forced on children without their or their parents consent - I'm sure I recall reading about US schools threatening to throw out children if their parents don't consent to the data slurping.

      It's also worth remembering that not using Google's search engine doesn't stop them profiling you. Like FarceBork (see Max Shrems and the destruction of Safe Harbour), Google are good at getting web site owners to embed code on sites that will track & profile users regardless of whether those site users have, or would if they knew, consented to it.

      1. GeekyDad
        Flame

        School Data (mis) Management

        Yup, this, for me, is more about how school's manage data, rather than the hardly new revelation that Google/Facebook et al are not-so-secret data slurpers/profilers/sellers.

        Let's not forget, schools are full of kids. The personal data they capture & manage includes name, address, date of birth, ethnicity, special ediucation needs, contact details etc on vast swathes of the population, most of whom are under 16. This stuff should be treated *way* more carefully than it is at present.

        I started looking into how my kid's school manages data earlier this year. It's not pretty...

        The ICO registration that schools use are all the same and deficient. How many will even have read it?

        The data processing consent forms schools send to parents don't tell anything like the whole story on data processing or sharing. Consent to process & share is assumed if forms are not returned.

        There is no data retention policy in place either within the school, or with 3rd party data processing providers with whom data is shared.

        Ask your kid's school how many external organisations they voluntarily share data with (not many are legally mandated). You might expect a few. Try over 40. WTF!?!?!

        Ask them to justify on a case by case basis the fields they send to each 3rd party. They can't. They run the same extract and send it to them all. It's easier that way apparently.

        Due diligence relating to external data processors is laughable: 'Everyone else uses them so it must be OK'. Doh!

        Once personal data leaves the school they realistically have no idea where it is stored, what safeguards are in place, who has access to it, what they do with it and if they sell it on for profit.

        The upcoming GDPR is intended to address some of these issues, Brexit notwithstanding:

        https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/General_Data_Protection_Regulation

        /rant

  9. Anonymous Blowhard

    "they cannot imprison us all for suspicion of not voting for Theresa May"

    Don't worry; TM has ensured that voting is unnecessary, even for the Conservative Party.

  10. Flywheel Silver badge
    Facepalm

    Leaving education, and on to Google for Work?

    I'm assuming then if Google's "ethics" are such for education, are we looking at the same situation for Google For Work? Thoughts please..

  11. SimonC

    Obfuscating their terms of service to profit from you? Someone better update wikipedia's Don't be evil page ... https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Don%27t_be_evil

    Buchheit, the creator of Gmail, said he "wanted something that, once you put it in there, would be hard to take out", adding that the slogan was "also a bit of a jab at a lot of the other companies, especially our competitors, who at the time, in our opinion, were kind of exploiting the users to some extent."

    Exploiting users. Huh. Fancy that.

  12. earl grey Silver badge
    Mushroom

    i'm missing the free alternative

    Who came up with the free alternative that doesn't slurp? Anyone?

    Anyone at all?

    crickets...

    ODFO

  13. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Dissembling

    We don't sell your useless raw data. We analyze and correlate it to create a pithy marketing profile of you. That's what we sell.

    Alternatives? There are some decent ones based in Europe, with free plans funded by premium plans or donations. Trustworthy? I don't know. Do you own research.

  14. The Dark Side

    I don`t know S**t!!!

    Awhile ago at a meeting at an organization, concerns about google mail were raised. I was asked for my opinion (being the new IT Guy), these were answered as were my concerns regards the google school service. These were also my concerns then as of now. But it was amazing how deaf and stupid some people in authority can be (apparently I don`t know s**t according to a member of the senior management). And i all i will say now is i told you so. PMSL

  15. Anonymous Vulture
    Alert

    Plain language

    Clearly there is a need for plain language in contracts. They should be written so any student enrolled in an A-level can understand it. Too often plain language is interpreted as meaning that your average lawyer thinks she understands it enough to file a suit in order to collect fees over a perceived ambiguity.

    As for "Don't Be Evil" my retort is "Don't Make Me Laugh".

  16. MMA

    Lawyer-ish language

    This is typical legal language 'parsing' that you find in almost all TOS agreements. Google doesn't sell the raw user data. But it data-mines it for 'information' (derived data) and sells this to 3rd parties.

    So no data about Sven the individual is sold, but information about Svens 3rd grade class, and what level they are reading at, and how that compares to all other students using the platform is sold or used to promote the platform. I'm not sure why this is news.

    Of course the lawyers that wrote the TOS should do a better job defining terms, but why spend a lot of time writing a TOS that no one ever seems to read?

  17. anonCoward24
    Paris Hilton

    same in Etsy

    "Content that you post using our Services is your content (so let’s refer to it as “Your Content”). We don’t make any claim to it."

    "By posting Your Content, you grant Etsy a non-exclusive, worldwide, royalty-free, irrevocable, sub-licensable, perpetual license to use, display, edit, modify, reproduce, distribute, store, and prepare derivative works of Your Content to provide the Services and to promote Etsy, your Etsy shop, or the Services in general, in any formats and through any channels, including across any Etsy Services or third-party website or advertising medium."

    The nuance is in the "non-exclusive". You still own yourself, you can sell yourself to others, as much as you want. Except that Etsy owns whatever you posted there, /also/.

    1. Queasy Rider

      We don’t make any claim to it...

      ...which is a statement belied by every word in the following terms.

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