New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas has filed a complaint against Google for collecting children’s data through the use of its G Suite for Education (Google Education) product. Google collected data from students under the age of 13 that used Google’s Gmail, Calendar, Drive, Docs, and other products. This information was collected without parental consent, while children were often required to use these devices or products by their schools. New Mexico alleged the practice violates the federal Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) and New Mexico’s Unfair Practices Act.
Google’s Education products were “marketed to schools, parents and students as a free and purely educational tool, the use of Google Education and other Google products comes as a very real cost that Google purposefully obscures.” Google Education is in widespread use with “more than 80 million educators and students in the United States – including more than 25 million who use Google-powered laptops, called ‘Chromebooks,’ in schools – essentially giving Google sole and exclusive access to millions of students’ digital lives and their personal data. More valuable still, Google has captured generations of future customers who are trained to use Google’s platform as early as kindergarten.” Google is accused of misleading the public and making false promises; the plaintiff alleged Google did not live up to its Student Privacy Pledge, providing a false sense of security to students and teachers. COPPA requires “websites and online services fully and clearly disclose their data collection, use, and disclosure practices, and obtain ‘verifiable parental consent’ before collecting, using, or disclosing personal information from children under 13.” Google has also allegedly collected data from educators using the Google Education platform. AG Balderas argued that the acts are a gross invasion of privacy and inflict harm on the education system.
Information that Google has collected includes: “[students’ and educators’] physical locations”; “websites they visit”; “every search term they use in Google’s search engine (and the results they click on)”; “the videos they watch on YouTube”; “personal contact lists”; “voice recordings”; “saved passwords”; and “other behavioral information.” Up until 2014, Google was using this information for advertising purposes. Further, Google contradicts its practices with Google Education and outside Google accounts and products. “Outside of its Google Education platform, Google forbids children under the age of 13 in the United States from having their own Google accounts.” However, Google collects data via Google Education and stores the information in each user’s profile for its own use.
The New Mexico Attorney General’s press release stated that “[s]tudent safety should be the number one priority of any company providing services to our children, particularly in schools,” Attorney General Balderas said. “Tracking student data without parental consent is not only illegal, it is dangerous; and my office will hold any company accountable who compromises the safety of New Mexican children.” AG Balderas has informed schools in New Mexico about the lawsuit, noting that there is “no immediate harm to the continued use of these products and that this lawsuit should not interrupt daily instruction” in schools.
Balderas sent a cease and desist letter to Google CEO Sundar Pichai. AG Balderas informed Pichai of the illegality of Google’s practices and requested that the company stop collecting the data of minors as alleged in the complaint.
The New Mexico Attorney General’s office filed a similar suit against Google and other companies toward the end of 2018, stating that these companies illegally collected data from “child-directed mobile apps.” No decision has been made in that case.
Balderas has sought for the court to declare that Google’s actions violated COPPA, the FTC Act, the UPA, and intrusion upon seclusion; to order injunctive relief, to pay $5,000 for each willful UPA violation, to award damages and for other relief as deemed necessary.
The suit was filed in the New Mexico District Court.