Sunday, 19 October 2014

Google's Education

My son’s school ran an evening presentation for parents detailing its IT policy for the next three years. I won’t bore you with the details of this two hour long presentation; more than half was devoted to “Doh!” grade material along the lines of the case for letting kids learn about/with computers in the first place. The policy itself is good, and – to this self declared expert – stands well on that very unattainable equilibrium of price, value and practicality. I will also note the school principle stood out to let us know parents who cannot afford the cost will be supported, a point whose absence I would consider casus belli on any school IT plan.

My wife allowed me to attend the session only if I promise to behave. Which is one of the reasons I did not make a fuss of what I consider to be a deep chasm in the presenter’s understanding of the concept of online privacy.
Under the banner of privacy, the presented informed us the school kids will use either Google’s educational apps and/or Microsoft Office 365 educational suite. Both are cloud based. The reason this was presented under the privacy flag? Each child will have their own separate account, and the whole school will have its own area that no one else can touch.
This is where I have my reservations. Yes, no one else can touch this area, NSA & Co excepted, but what about Google itself? Surely, it does not provide all these educational facilities because it thinks my child and his school colleagues are so good looking? No, I was told, I needn’t worry; Google promises not to do anything with the information it collects through the educational program. They even have a separate privacy policy to cover that program.
So I went and checked that privacy policy. You can go to pages explaining it to the laymen, such as this one here. This is where the presenter’s naivety struck me. I could accept such naivety a while ago, but in this post Snowden age? In an environment where we know governments and companies lie to us and hide behind carefully spun words to hide their true acts? No.
Have a look at the following clause from Google:
We do not scan your data or email in Google Apps Services for advertising purposes.
Note the glaring absences. Sure, in its creation of a personal dossier of its users, Google will not use anything done through its suite of educational apps. However, do note that Google does not limit itself when it comes to things done outside that suite. For example, what if a child starting to explore their sexuality ventures outside Google’s apps while using the same browser they’re logged in to Google with? And what if those websites the child visits ring Google back through facilities such as Google Analytics, DoubleClick or Google Adsense? Google’s privacy policy does not say what Google will do with information it collects this way. Given what we have learnt from Snowden, this reads like Google having a field day to me.
Don’t get me wrong. I think Google’s educational suite is pretty good and I suspect the vast majority would consider me a paranoid for the threat I consider Google to pose on my son’s privacy. However, my point here is simply to point out that Google is no angel; that Google is giving away free stuff, like its Android operating system, because it makes money out of our privacy. It makes tons of it. And we shouldn’t ignore that when we consider our children’s education options.
This is why, out of the two options, I would prefer my son to use Office 365. It’s not that Microsoft is a beacon for privacy; it is to do with Microsoft having less of a strangle hold on the Internet. In this world where your privacy is guaranteed to evaporate once you venture online, my risk minimisation approach includes hedging my bets with the various players. I apply that approach with my choice of cloud storage providers, and I suggest it applies to schools’ IT policies just the same.

Image by Giulia Forsythe, Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) licence

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