As Google for Education tools enter classrooms across Canada, some parents are asking to opt-out
Classroom tools' worldwide growth has elicited questions about student privacy
Last October, Riaz Bassari's daughter came home from her elementary school class with a permission form for G Suite for Education: a set of cloud-based digital learning tools Google offers to schools for free.
The form, issued by the Greater Victoria School District in B.C., asked Bassari to agree that "my child's personal information will be used for a Google Apps for Education account."
Bassari, however, decided to not to sign the form, and soon discovered there was no alternative to Google's tools at his daughter's school.
"You either sign up or you're left out," Bassari told Spark.
Google for Education includes educational versions of Gmail and Google Docs, as well as special classroom applications that let teachers assign work or let students track science experiments in class.
Since it launched 12 years ago, its user base has surged to 60 million students and teachers around the world.
The growth has elicited questions about student privacy and the role of a tech giant in Canada's public education system, but on the ground, it's become hit with teachers.
In Canada, Google for Education is now being used in most every part of the country. The tool set includes G Suite for Education tools and Chromebooks — inexpensive laptops — to use them.
Statistics are hard to come by, but the Alberta Ministry of Education told Spark that about 90 per cent of public school authorities are using G Suite for Education to some extent. It's being used in every public school in Nova Scotia as well.
'We're creating a bunch of consumers'
Brad Payne, a software developer in Victoria, didn't sign the form either for his son in Grade 3. The school instead offered to let him use the applications on a computer while signed in as his teacher.
"There was sort of a feeling of 'otherness,' because all the kids had accounts and he didn't," Payne said.
Payne said he doesn't trust Google with his data, pointing to the company's ad-based business model.
He doesn't like how the company is establishing itself in the school system either.
"We're creating a bunch of consumers for Google. There's maybe 20,000 students [in our school district] and they're going to be very familiar with this product with this suite of products," Payne said.
Connecting the classroom
Google for Education has grown so large that a cottage industry of educator conferences and consultants has grown around it.
In April the EdTechTeam, a California company that holds education tech events in 38 countries on seven continents held a summit at a high school in Cambridge, Ontario.
The summit brought teachers, school board IT administrators, superintendents and other educators together to learn best practices for using the suite in the classroom.
"G Suite tools have opened up the ability for learning to not just be within the classroom," said Kim Pollishuke, an educational resource teacher at the York Region District School Board in Ontario.
She lauded Google Hangouts' video conference application for letting her connect her students with the world in a way field trips never could.
"A few years ago I had my students learning about command economies and I connected with a teacher who was living in South Korea. He kindly stayed up in the middle of the night and came and did a hangout with my students."
"I think our main concern is that there it is quite a lot of information that is going to get accumulated through … my daughter's educational life," Bassari said.
But that doesn't mean Google isn't collecting data on students. The policy allows for the collection of information including location or GPS data, what mobile network a user is on, or their phone number.
"G Suite for Education account is a Google Account created and managed by a school for use by students and educators. Location history is disabled by default for G Suite for Education K to 12 users, but a school's administrators can allow individuals or groups to enable it," a Google spokesperson told Spark.
Storing student data in the U.S.
Another of Bassari's concerns is that Google stores its G Suite for Education data outside Canada.
"That information is outside of Canada, does not have any FOIPA (the Freedom of Information Protection or Privacy Act) protection," Bassari said.
He's referring to BC's privacy legislation, which requires permission to store data outside of the country. Once it leaves Canada, the provincial and federal governments may have less sway over what happens to it.
David Fraser, a privacy lawyer with McInnes Cooper in Halifax, says fears about foreign data collection are overblown.
"I think that the risk is really quite low when it comes to big brother's access to this sort of information because it's simply not of interest to big brother," he said.
Some consent forms reference U.S. anti-terror laws like the Freedom Act (formerly the Patriot Act), warning parents that their children's data could be swept by U.S. government agencies.
Fraser says he thinks parents don't need to lose sleep over this since most kids' user data wouldn't be of any interest to the FBI.
He also points out that Canada has similar anti-terrorism laws. Having reviewed hundreds of the production orders government issues when it wants to access information about people, "I can tell you it doesn't involve elementary and high school students," Fraser told Spark.
Jonathan Rochelle is the director of product management at Google for Education. Rochelle says protecting student privacy is a key feature for Google for Education.
"It's a really important question and we feel it's probably the most important question and probably our highest valued area. In other words we feel that privacy and security are the most important things we can provide," said Rochelle.
He also says Google for Education products are handled completely differently than other Google services and that these promises are backed up by legal contracts.
"We have to abide by the law and we do and by the contracts we signed with both businesses and educators that use our products. They own the data that they use within the accounts in their domain. And that's something that we hold completely sacred," Rochelle said.
Privacy and profit motives
Sophia Cope, a staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, is skeptical of Google's claims about privacy.
"You can't ignore the fact that they are a private company with a profit motive," Cope said.
Cope says there are no easy options for parents trying to opt-out of G Suite for Education. She suggested parents pull together to push for alternatives and for school boards to negotiate with Google to disable certain data-collecting practices.
Bassari said his daughter's school board has yet to offer an alternative to G Suite for Education, even though the consent form said the board would provide one.
"There is none that they told us exists. We've asked repeatedly," he said.
The Greater Victoria School District wouldn't comment on Bassari's case, stating privacy reasons, but said in a written statement that, "The district is actively exploring ways to create a district 'digital hub' that could provide consistent alternative educational opportunities for students, staff and also be accessible to parents."
This segment was produced by Craig Desson and Josh Flear.