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By Yoree Koh
This article is being republished as part of our daily reproduction of WSJ.com articles that also appeared in the U.S. print edition of The Wall Street Journal (February 21, 2020).
New Mexico sued Alphabet Inc.'s Google, alleging that the internet giant knowingly spies on students and their families through its Google Education platform.
The state says Google has used the platform to circumvent privacy laws and gain access to children's personal data and movements online, according to a complaint filed Thursday in federal court in Albuquerque.
According to the lawsuit, Google collected troves of personal information including students' physical locations, visits to websites, internet searches, videos viewed on YouTube, contact lists, voice recordings and saved passwords, among other details.
"These claims are factually wrong," Google spokesman Jose Castaneda said in an emailed statement. "G Suite for Education allows schools to control account access and requires that schools obtain parental consent when necessary. We do not use personal information from users in primary and secondary schools to target ads," he said.
The lawsuit is the latest challenge to Google's data-collection practices amid broader criticism by lawmakers, regulators and others of the company's efforts to protect user privacy, particularly regarding children. Federal law prohibits companies from collecting data on children under 13 without parental consent.
In September, YouTube, also owned by Alphabet, agreed to pay a $170 million fine to the Federal Trade Commission, without admitting wrongdoing, to settle allegations that it tracked internet activity for children to sell ads for products.
Google has captured about 60% of the school device market, according to Futuresource Consulting, by distributing its low-cost Chromebooks. The budget laptops are a gateway to a Google world: They house its education platform, run on its Chrome operating system and are loaded with the Chrome web browser. The laptops introduce students to the company's products starting as early as kindergarten. The Google Education platform is a suite of free tools for schools that include Google-powered email, cloud storage and calendars.
"Student safety should be the number-one priority of any company providing services to our children, particularly in schools," New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas said in a statement.
The lawsuit alleges that while Google has positioned its education platform "as a benign tool that is an answer to resource-deprived schools nationwide," the company secretly uses it to monitor children's online activity even at home and on their personal devices.
The state says in its complaint that Google violates the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act, or COPPA, by not allowing parents to review or limit what data the platform collects and uses and that the company "conditions use of its product" through far-reaching data collection.
Google allegedly does this by encouraging students to use their Google Education login information to access their Google accounts -- including on personal computers, mobile devices and school-issued Chromebooks -- the state says in the complaint. Once students are logged in, a function called Chrome Sync turns on automatically, letting Google collect students' Chrome usage data -- from web searches to passwords -- in its servers, the complaint says.
The state worked with an analytics team that has conducted forensic testing and "identified this data being transmitted," said Brian McMath, an assistant attorney general in the state's consumer and environmental protection division.
Students and parents can opt out of allowing Google to read the data, but the lawsuit alleges that option is buried in settings where parents likely never see it.
Common Sense Media, a San-Francisco based children's advocacy group, applauded the move.
"Students and parents are a vulnerable audience who have little say in what products kids must use, and companies are taking advantage of them, " said James P. Steyer, chief executive and founder of the nonprofit organization. "We have long had a law in place, COPPA, to protect kids' data, and it is important that state leaders like AG Balderas step up to protect children," he said.
This isn't Mr. Balderas's first legal tussle with Google. In September 2018, his office filed a similar lawsuit against Google and other tech companies for allegedly collecting data from child-directed mobile apps. The companies have denied wrongdoing and the case is pending.
Write to Yoree Koh at email@example.com
(END) Dow Jones Newswires
February 21, 2020 02:47 ET (07:47 GMT)
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