Google is about to take over many elementary schools in Europe with its Chromebooks and the app collection in Google Suit for Education. The data monopoly sits on about half of the elementary schools in Denmark, and the second largest municipality, Aarhus, has given all the kids a Chromebook. This happens despite negative experiences from the US and warnings from both Nordic data authorities that the use of Google is not in compliance with EU law. Microsoft sits on the other half of the education market and only few schools are trying with alternative privacy-focused open source solutions in stead of engaging the kids in the surveillance industry.
It is so obvious, as we all know the features. The convenient, stable services from Google. Why not use that in the schools, when the teachers and the pupils know them so well, and when they are much cheaper than Apple and also cheaper than Microsoft – up to five times cheaper, accoding to the Swedish Linkøbing Kommune. The fact that it is cheaper is probably due to Google’s busines model called ‘free’. When something is free or very cheap, you might be paying with something else, e.g. your data. Such is the case with most Google services.
Google Suit for Education, which offers Docs, Slides, Sheets, Drive, Gmail, Meet, Chat and Calender, got a GO from the Danish Data Authority in 2017. Google promises parents and schools following – and mind the wording:
“Like all G Suite for Education services, there are no ads in Classroom. Your content or data is never used for advertising purposes,” they write in a Q&A.
What about other purposes like profiling, prediction or traing of algorithms? To promise that data is not used for ads is enough for schools and authorities.
There are other traps in using Google for education. Services like Youtube, Maps, Chrome og Search are not part of the core of Google Suite for Education – approved by the data authorities. So, if the kids use these services, data is collected and used just like any other grownup’s. Therefore they have log out of the core of Google Suit for Education before entering other serivces. Really hard to practise.
Google and Microsoft – and partly Apple – are competing for the school market. In just 5 years Google took over the classroom in the US – between 2012 and 2017 according to The New York Times. The idea, of course, is to accustom the kids to their service, so they grow into fullblown customers once they leave school. And the very same article also points to the fact that schools are helping kids convert their Google school accounts to personal accounts once they leave school.
The state of New Mexico has sued Google claiming that the kids are tracked, including their location, via Google Suit For Education according to Wall Street Journal.
Warnings from Nordic DPAs
The Norwegian as well as the Danish data protection authority has warned that using Google in schools can be a challenge. In the end of 2020 the Danish DPA scolded over half of the country’s municipalities for not using Google for Education in a way that offers enough data protection. Accoding to an official there Google makes it pretty hard for the users to understand and use the system i full compliance. It was the same message from Norway in December 2020, where three municipalities was scolded for breaking the data laws in their use of Google. The head of the DPA Bjørn Erik Thon said in their press release:
If you decide to use Google you must understand what it means to the pupils’ privacy. You must have a an overview over which data is collected, and what they are used for. When you have that overview, you can then analyse what is at stake for the pupils, but the municipalities did do have that.“
The Norwegian DPA has developed Guidelines for use of Google Chromebook and G Suit for Education, and it explains that for all Google so-called ‘additional services’ – such as use of the Chrome Browser, Google Maps, Google Search and Youtube, the pupils can be profiled by Google. The DPA further writes:
“It is very hard to get a full overview of all elements in an agreement with Google. They refer to websites inside the agreement, who then refer to other agreements, and Google is also changing name to Workspace and thus sometimes uses ‘G Suite’, other times ‘Workspace’,” it states – and lists 13 different places where Google is refering to in its agreements.
There Are Alternatives
European schools and municipalities should work together and find a way for pupils to use tech outside the surveillance industry. They’ve done that in Spanish Valencia and in Barcelona , where they are running a pilot using services like Nextcloud, Big Blue Button (video), Moodle (learning software) and Jitsi (video).
In the French municipality of Fontaine they’ve also worked on ethical alternatives. According tho CIO in Fontaine, Nicolas Vivant, they bought 200 computeres running on a Linux-based operating system deleveloped by Elementary.io. The computers are cheaper than Chromebooks. All software is easy and beautiful to use, he explains in this video podcast from Small Technology Foundation 14.1.2021.The same podcast talks about the computer Pine64, which should be a great alternative to big techs’, and concluded that one problem with open source and privacy focused services is that they cannot lobby and market themselves compared to what big tech companies can.
Therefore publich authorities could go ahead and be role models and demand that ethical alternatives are used whenever possible.