Google to stop scanning student emails for data

Faith Merino · April 30, 2014 · Short URL:

Google was taken to task for "reading" student/teacher emails for targeted ad data

I remember the first time I used Gmail and found that whatever I talked about in an email later showed up in targeted ads—which made me realize that the scary Google overlord was reading my emails. Sort of. It’s actually robots, according to the company. But still!

Google was taken to task recently by some students in California, who claimed that the company’s email scanning violated wiretap laws. A court battle ensued, and Google told the Wall Street Journal Wednesday that henceforth, it will no longer be scanning students’ or teachers’ emails.

It’s not just Gmail, though. Google Apps for Education was at the center of the court battle. The free service offers email accounts, calendars, cloud storage, and document creation. The service is used by 30 million students and teachers.

Google has offered the service to educational institutions since 2006, and part of the allure for students and teachers has been the fact that the company doesn’t place ads directly in the apps. What it has been doing, however, is collecting data on users—including data picked up from private email messages—to deliver targeted ads to those users.

Which is not altogether surprising. I mean, my God, it’s a free service. Haven’t we all figured out that if it’s free, your data is being mined like nobody’s business?

But such data collection may actually violate the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, which protects educational records, according to Education Week magazine.

So Bram Bout, director of Google for Education, told WSJ that Google will no longer collect student data via Gmail or Apps for Education for targeted advertising. He also said that Google will no longer scan for data in its Apps for business and government.

Interesting timing. Over the weekend, Princeton sociology professor Janet Vertesi talked about big data at the Theorizing the Web conference on Brooklyn—or rather, she talked about how she has spent the last nine months going to extreme lengths to hide her pregnancy from big data. That has meant using Tor for all her searching and needs, paying for everything in cash, and forbidding friends and family from making any mention of her pregnancy on social media (she even unfriended her uncle after he sent her a congratulatory message on Facebook).

She and her husband bought Amazon gift cards in cash and had their items delivered at an Amazon locker. At one point, her husband tried to buy $500 worth of Amazon gift cards in cash and found a notice at the Rite Aid counter informing him that the company has a legal obligation to report excessive transactions to authorities.

And everyone remembers the New York Times story about how Target identified a teenager’s pregnancy before her parents did.

The average person’s marketing data is worth 10 cents. When a woman gets pregnant, her data shoots up to $1.50.

It seems unlikely that a student or teacher’s data would be worth more than the average person’s, considering the fact that neither has much money to throw around, so it’s doubtful that Google is going to lose out on that much money by giving them up. 


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