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Rice IT discusses privacy lawsuit against Google

By Jennifer Shen     3/25/14 8:12pm

Google is facing a lawsuit for collecting data from its Google Apps for Education’s users, Education Week reports. If Google is found guilty, the result may affect Rice students and faculty, since Rice switched to GAE in 2012.

Google is facing a lawsuit for collecting data from its Google Apps for Education’s users, Education Week reports. If Google is found guilty, the result may affect Rice students and faculty, since Rice switched to GAE in 2012.

According to its website, GAE is a set of web-based utility tools including email, calendar and documents that Google provides to educational institutions for free. Part of the lawsuit accuses Google for violating student-data privacy, according to Education Week.

A Google representative confirmed to Education Week that it “scans and indexes” GAE users’ emails for various purposes, regardless of whether targeted ads are served. According to Education Week, Google would not comment on whether the indexed data is used to build user profiles.

If Google does build user profiles from student data, Rice students and faculty would be included, as Rice uses Google products under GAE.

Barry Ribbeck, director of Systems, Architecture, Infrastructure, Cloud Strategies and Initiatives, said Rice IT has no way of knowing exactly what Google does with student information.

“Gmail was provided to us as a service,” Ribbeck said. “[Google] says in a pretty broad term what they do and don’t do.”

Ribbeck said since the GAE service was provided for free, Google may be using users’ behavior for other purposes, such as targeted ads.

However, Google said they were offering the service for free because they want to create a generation of people who are used to using Google products, according to Ribbeck, and the targeted ads by Google was turned off when IT deployed the GAE service.

“Per our initial contract with Google we are only obligated to serve ads if we provide services through our campus Google Apps for Education to alumni which we currently do not,” Ribbeck said. “Google does make changes to the TOS from time to time and we are notified if the changes are substantial. This is in line with what most if not all cloud providers state in their TOS to date.”

Ribbeck said Rice IT monitors the Google services only to make sure they are running properly and does not read, review or download any student data. Rice IT will only access student data if a legal action is required, such as legal eDiscovery requests through a subpoena, or when there is an emergency where the student’s health or well-being is at stake.

“IT would only review data by request of the owner as part of a diagnostic process,” Ribbeck said. “As with all services the IT providers manage, service administrators may have the ability to access your data, but there has to be an established and appropriate need to do so. Rice IT staff are required to follow a code of ethics that prohibits inappropriate access. Any access by administrators is monitored for auditing purposes.”

Ribbeck said since the accusations against Google about accessing student data have not yet been upheld in court, IT will withhold action until something is confirmed.

“We’re just going to sit back and watch and see what falls out of the Google court case,” Ribbeck said.

According to Ribbeck, the Information Technology Advisory Committee has discussed potentially providing a non-Google email account if there is an occasion that requires one, such as an undergraduate who is working on a confidential research project.

“The answer was yes, we could technically, but it would be difficult to manage,” Ribbeck said.  “This corner case has yet to surface.”

In response to potential student concern regarding privacy, Ribbeck said it would be too hard to support opting out of Gmail individually.

“If there is going to be a change, I think it would need to go back through the previous process to get all undergrad email changed to something other than Google and not just specific individuals who may not want to agree to the Google TOS,” Ribbeck said. “[But] you have to remember that other services have a TOS as well and they might cause even more discourse so careful considerations need to be made.”

Ribbeck said Rice switched to Gmail and other Google services a little over two years ago because of overwhelming demand from undergraduate students, which was confirmed by an escalating number of students who were forwarding their Rice emails to their personal Google accounts.

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