March 12, 2020, Trial News | The American Association For Justice

March 12, 2020, Trial News

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Google Education products violate children’s privacy rights, says New Mexico

Maureen Leddy

photo of children in a classroom

New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas sued Google last month, alleging that the company’s educational products violate state and federal privacy laws, including the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act. In the lawsuit brought on behalf of New Mexico’s students, the state asserts that Google illegally collected “troves of information” about the students’ physical locations, web activity, personal contact lists, voice recordings, and more. The lawsuit is one of many recent ones alleging technology companies have inadequate protections in place for users who are minors.
 

New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas sued Google last month, alleging that the company’s educational products violate state and federal privacy laws, including the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA). In the lawsuit brought on behalf of New Mexico’s students, the state asserts that Google illegally collected “troves of information” about the students’ physical locations, web activity, personal contact lists, voice recordings, and more. Under COPPA, parental consent is needed before such information is collected from children under 13. The lawsuit is one of many recent ones alleging technology companies have inadequate protections in place for users who are minors. (Balderas v. Google LLC, No. 1:20-cv-00143 (D.N.M. filed Feb. 20, 2020).)

More than 80 million educators and students use the Google Education package “G Suite for Education,” according to New Mexico’s complaint. More than 25 million use Google Chromebooks, laptop devices that run on the Chrome operating system. Though Google provides its software package free of charge, New Mexico alleges that it “comes at a very real cost that Google purposefully obscures.” Among those costs, the state said, are granting Google access to the students’ digital activities and personal data. In the complaint, New Mexico alleges Google is monitoring children’s browsing habits and behaviors and storing accumulated data in student profiles that it uses for commercial purposes, which violates COPPA.  

Under COPPA, online service providers like Google must adopt “reasonable procedures” to “protect the confidentiality, security, and integrity of personal information collected from children” and may not condition a child’s use of services or participation in online games on the disclosure of more personal data than is reasonably necessary to participate in the activity. In addition, COPPA requires that online services data collection and usage practices be disclosed to the parents of users under 13 and that parents have the ability to “review or have deleted the child's personal information, and refuse to permit further collection or use of the child's information.” In its complaint, New Mexico alleges Google violates these requirements.

This lawsuit comes after Google’s record $170 million settlement in September 2019 with the Federal Trade Commission and the New York Attorney General over allegations that its subsidiary, YouTube, illegally collected children’s personal information without parental consent. That suit focused on YouTube’s use of persistent identifiers, or “cookies,” to deliver targeted advertisements to viewers—the plaintiffs alleged that this use of cookies to track children’s internet browsing habits constitutes a violation of COPPA. Because YouTube touted its popularity with children to corporate advertisers like Mattel and Hasbro and maintained child-directed channels, it was subject to COPPA requirements, the plaintiffs alleged. That settlement required Google to implement and maintain a system for YouTube channel owners to ensure that their child-directed content complies with COPPA’s parental consent provisions and imposed annual notice and training requirements.

Google isn’t the only tech company under scrutiny for allegedly violating children’s online privacy rights. In class actions filed in California and Washington in June 2019, minor plaintiffs allege that Amazon’s smart speaker, Alexa, and Alexa-enabled device products are recording and permanently storing their voices, in violation of state privacy laws. Amazon’s motion to dismiss the case is pending, but in the meantime, class discovery is proceeding.

“Companies are racing to control every aspect of our daily lives, and now prey on children in hopes of extracting data and profits from innocent victims who cannot give informed consent,” said Chicago attorney Travis Lenkner, who represents the plaintiffs in the Amazon lawsuit. “With regulators unable or unwilling to act, vigilance by consumers and their lawyers is the only way to police unlawful data harvests and keep tech companies honest.” He added that “these allegations in the New Mexico suit expose Google’s brazen conduct. Amazon and others are engaged in similar bad acts.”

Rochester, N.Y., attorney Hadley Matarazzo, who also handles data privacy cases, said that “Google is the dominant tech brand in American public schools, so it is extremely troubling they are deceptively tracking millions of school children for noneducational, business purposes without the consent of their parents.” She added that after last year’s allegations by the FTC and New York that “Google and its subsidiary, YouTube, were harvesting the personal information of children without their parents’ consent, it’s not surprising that Google is now facing a similar lawsuit from the state of New Mexico related to its educational products.”