Google stops data-mining students' email

Filed Under: Featured, Google, Privacy

Gmail. Image courtesy of ShutterstockGoogle's thrown in the towel on its habit of data-mining students - something over which it's been dragged into court.

As Google has already argued, it previously turned off ads by default in Apps for Education services.

However, that still left the option for users to turn them back on.

Bram Bout, director of Google for Education, on Wednesday announced on Google's blog that the company has now killed that option.

Google's data mining of the education apps has also been nixed, he said:

We've permanently removed the "enable/disable" toggle for ads in the Apps for Education Administrator console. This means ads in Apps for Education services are turned off and administrators no longer have the option or ability to turn ads in these services on.

We've permanently removed all ads scanning in Gmail for Apps for Education, which means Google cannot collect or use student data in Apps for Education services for advertising purposes.

This move affects what Google says are about 30 million students, teachers and school administrators who use - sometimes without choice, when it comes to students - Google Apps for Education.

Brout said that users who've chosen to show AdSense ads on their Google Sites will still have the ability to display those existing ads on their websites, but they won't be able to edit or add new AdSense ads to existing sites or to new pages.

Google's also making the same changes to all of its Google Apps customers, including Business, Government and for legacy users of the free version, and will provide an update when the rollout is complete.

Google has touted its educational web apps as an easy way for students to collaborate on projects, with its cheery blue banner proclaiming that Google Apps for Education has "Everything your school needs".

Nine plaintiffs who filed charges against Google over data mining, including two students who've used the Apps for Education suite, didn't agree that data mining was something that users or schools need.

The currently pending lawsuit rolled up a hodgepodge of seven individual and class action cases brought against Google, including those brought against the company for scanning messages sent from non-Gmail users.

The suit, which plaintiffs hoped to turn into a class action suit, accuses Google of violating federal and state anti-wiretapping law.

It's no secret that Google scans emails in its users' inboxes, of course. The consumer Gmail product is free and pays its way with targeted advertising. The targeting is done by building up profiles of users' interests based on the content of their email.

But it's one thing to willingly give up on privacy to get free apps. Google has no right to scan the email of students who are required to use the apps, or that of non-Gmail users who send email to Gmail account holders, given that such users haven't accepted Google's terms of service, the suit maintains.

Classroom. Image courtesy of ShutterstockApps for Education is used by K-12 schools and institutions of higher education throughout the world for free online applications such as email, calendar, word processing, spreadsheet and collaborative document sharing.

Google has admitted that it automatically scans and indexes the email of Apps for Education users even though ads are off by default, in order to provide features such as virus protection, spelling checks, and Gmail's "priority inbox".

Google has previously said that these automated processes can't actually be turned off, even for users who choose not to receive ads.

It must have underestimated its own technical chops. Given Wednesday's news, Google must have discovered a way to put a muzzle on its own data mining moles.

We're not all immune to the moles' digging, though. Unless you're a Google Apps customer, you can expect those scrabbly little paws to keep right on digging through your inbox.

Emma Carr, deputy director of the UK group Big Brother Watch, told the BBC that it would certainly be nice if we all had the control that Google just handed over to Apps customers:

Scanning emails is clearly intrusive, so any step to protect children is a positive one. However, Google could certainly go further by introducing the same controls for users of all ages and for all of its services.

I agree. And if you'd like to give Google a piece of your mind on the issue, you can tune in to a hosted Hangout.

To wit: on Thursday, 1 May at 9:00 AM PST (5:00 PM GMT), Google plans to host a Hangout on Air on its Google for Education G+ page with Bout; Jonathan Rochelle, Director of Product Management for Docs and Drive, and Hank Thiele, Chief Technology Officer for District 207 in Park Ridge, Illinois, who uses Google Apps.

Image of Gmail and classroom courtesy of Shutterstock.

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6 Responses to Google stops data-mining students' email

  1. teejuu · 523 days ago

    Easy way to stop Google scanning your emails - close the account

    • Teejuu - don't forget the reason these kids won in court is because they had no option to close their google account, it was mandatory as part of their education.

      For those who choose not to use google over privacy issues, just closing your google account would not be enough.

      Google scans all mail going into google accounts, so you would also have to avoid sending mail to anyone on gmail. Most difficult, google also scans mail on the way out, so you would need to come up with some way of ensuring no one on gmail ever sent you an email.

      Best solution would be for google to stop accessing people's private mail (and address books, and locations and ... )

    • Mang · 523 days ago

      True, but digging through all your contacts, websites and so on to let them know you've changed your address? Not so fun.

      And closing the account doesn't work so well if you are an Android user, unless you are happy getting apps from places other than the Google store.

  2. Guy · 523 days ago

    If Google gave all users the option to stop data-mining e-mails, they may as well close down shop and file for bankruptcy.

    Does it bother people so much that an algorithm (not even a real human being) - just a bunch of ones and zeros, trawls through their e-mail so that Google can put some slightly less inappropriate ads on the side of their screen?

    Are these same people willing to pay a subscription to Google, to subsidize an otherwise enormously loss making endeavor on Google's part?

    And not a word on Google's world class security - the first to embrace 2-factor authentication, and clever heuristics that have almost completely eliminated account-jacking from within Gmail?

    Or what about Google's world leading Transparency Report, revealing to the world about government requests for user data? They didn't have to do that.

    And these same people who cry foul of their private data being cavalierly exploited - how many of them still have a Facebook account and post to it daily?

    People like to paint big corporations with the evil brush, but I would suggest that actually, Google's been more on the side of the consumer than almost any other big company that happens to have a lot of big data.

    • Anonymous · 522 days ago

      I say they have no right to complain about email scanning and indexing-it just screams they have no clue what benefit these are. I know for a fact that companies like Gaggle do the same (only much more intrusively for things like adult content in images). But does that ever get put in the spotlight? No, because they are not a big company like Google, therefore it's automatically a stupid complaint in the minds of people like the plaintiff.
      Google gets no credit for all the work they put into this unprofitable endeavor.

    • Free service not viable without google accessing our private mail ?

      Yahoo offers just that option - free email but you can opt out of the surveillance and targeted ads. You still get the ads - which fund the free email - but they are no longer targeted on the basis of your email content.

      Dropbox provides an excellent free service without accessing private files -they fund it all by giving a basis service for free and offering a premium service for cash.

      There are business models that do not involve surveillance of private mail.

      Google's 'advanced' security - allegedly protecting us against the government - is a red herring when the main people accessing our mail is google.

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About the author

I've been writing about technology, careers, science and health since 1995. I rose to the lofty heights of Executive Editor for eWEEK, popped out with the 2008 crash, joined the freelancer economy, and am still writing for my beloved peeps at places like Sophos's Naked Security, CIO Mag, ComputerWorld, PC Mag, IT Expert Voice, Software Quality Connection, Time, and the US and British editions of HP's Input/Output. I respond to cash and spicy sites, so don't be shy.