Those confidential emails you’re sending to professors — well, it turns out they may not be so confidential after all. Google’s “Apps for Education,” a tool that includes Gmail, Google docs and Google drive, may be using student information for targeted advertising. Google faces a lawsuit for allegedly scanning key words in emails, and using them to target advertisements at users. For instance, if an email has the word “hiking” in it, you might see more advertisements about hiking gear.
Nine plaintiffs, represented by an advocacy group called the Electronic Privacy Information Center, are now suing Google because they believe student privacy is being invaded.
Google, primarily used as a search engine, has vastly expanded its range of online services. One of these services, Google Apps for Education, now serves 30 million users worldwide. This no-cost tool offers schools email, document, chat and calendar services that are facilitated by faculty and students in education.
The suit is taking place in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California. If convicted, Google would be charged with violating several laws, including federal and state wiretap and privacy laws. This continuing lawsuit accuses Google of not only scanning information from student emails, but using that information to build profiles of users for purposes like “targeted advertising.”
Gmail, Google’s email service, is a main feature of Google Apps for Education. The Mills community recently switched email services from Microsoft Outlook to Gmail.
Junior Ashley Morgan has mixed feelings about this issue.
“On one hand I do feel that if a person is willing to put their personal information on the internet, they must assume that other people are going to see it regardless of who it was originally intended for,” Morgan said. “Conversely, I do believe that in the case of Google Apps for Education, we as students often do not have much of a choice when it comes to putting our information online.”
First year Willa Mankins does not mind her emails being scanned and continues using Google’s online services.
“It doesn’t really bother me because I don’t put anything particularly private on my email,” Mankins said. “I’ve always been a Gmail user. I’m not going to switch, even if they are looking at my emails. It doesn’t matter.”
First year Betty Chere feels like she has nothing to hide in her emails and makes a statement about the internet as a whole.
“The Internet has never been private, it’s never going to be private,” Chere said.
Second year Bridgette Blakesley understands the need for online businesses to make money.
“I think it’s more annoying than anything to target advertisements for the consumer, but I understand that that’s the way they make money,” Blakesley said. “I also don’t have anything to hide, so if people see my emails, if it doesn’t impact me directly, than I don’t really care.”
Google did not comment on whether or not information from emails was used to help build profiles of students or other Google Apps users.
In a statement to Education Week, the head of Google Apps for Education, Bram Bout, reassures skeptics about Google’s privacy standards.
“Google is committed to protecting the privacy and security of our users — and that includes students — to make sure their information is safe, secure and always available to them,” Bout said.
This lawsuit is ongoing, and a final verdict has not been reached.