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Google Disables Scanning of Student Email for Advertising Purposes

Under pressure from privacy advocates, Google announced on Wednesday that it had permanently removed all ads from its Apps for Education, including its email service, so the company can no longer harvest students’ information for advertising purposes.

Google had previously given college administrators the option of allowing the company to scan student Gmail accounts for key words and to deliver targeted advertisements to those students. But since few administrators are likely to have taken advantage of the possibility, most users won’t see a change.

The company outlined the changes on Wednesday in an online statement by Bram Bout, director of Google Apps for Education.

“We’ve permanently removed the ‘enable/disable’ toggle for ads in the Apps for Education Administrator console,” wrote Mr. Bout. “This means ads in Apps for Education services are turned off and administrators no longer have the option or ability to turn ads in these services on.”

In addition, he wrote, “we’ve permanently removed all ad scanning in Gmail for Apps for Education, which means Google cannot collect or use student data in Apps for Education services for advertising purposes.”

Although Google sets the ad switch to “off” by default for its education clients, the company has always given administrators the option of enabling advertisements. Cases in which an administrator would have flipped that switch were probably rare, according to Mike Chapple, senior director of IT-service delivery at the University of Notre Dame.

“I can’t imagine any circumstances where an institution would choose to have advertising,” said Mr. Chapple. Google has never offered Notre Dame any incentive to flip the switch, he said.

Google said that Gmail collects data on all incoming and outgoing messages for several reasons. The practice allows the company to identify certain messages as spam, and makes it possible for users to unearth old emails with key-word searches.

Scanning for potential advertising key words was part of that larger process, said Mr. Chapple. Google’s announcement on Wednesday suggests that the company has isolated and eliminated that part of the scanning process for Google Apps clients, he said.

“I don’t think there is a functional difference” in how student data will be used by Google as a result of the change, said Mr. Chapple. “It’s a reassurance to higher education that they’re only gathering the data necessary to deliver the service, and there’s no possibility of it being used for advertising.”

The change comes as Google is facing growing scrutiny over how it collects and analyzes data for advertising—particularly among students. In California, two college students joined a recent attempt to bring a class-action lawsuit against Google for violating state and federal privacy laws in its data-collection techniques, according to Education Week.

A federal judge barred the plaintiffs from suing the company as a group, but the case has fueled discussion about whether Google’s data collection might run afoul of the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, known as Ferpa. That was the case at Notre Dame, said Mr. Chapple. The Ferpa implications of the Google lawsuit prompted a “handful” of faculty members to raise concerns with the administration, which Mr. Chapple passed on to the university’s liaisons at Google Apps. He imagines Notre Dame was not the only client to take notice.

About 40 percent of nonprofit colleges use Google for institutional email, according to a 2013 survey by the Campus Computing Project.

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