SAN JOSE, Calif. (CN) — People who work for or attended the nation’s most prestigious colleges and universities claim that Google ran the schools’ email systems so it could spy on students, faculty and staff and use the information to generate more advertising revenue.
More than 175 plaintiffs who either attended or worked for some of the most prestigious universities filed suit in Santa Clara County Superior Court last month, claiming Internet giant systematically violated the federal Electronic Communications Privacy Act over a period of approximately three years.
“The content of plaintiffs’ and all educational users’ emails was intercepted, extracted, analyzed and used by Google to create user profiles, user-segment models and otherwise to enhance Google’s marketing, advertising, and other businesses interests and products,” the 56-page complaint says.
Google Apps for Education is a version of the company’s apps that includes email, documents, spreadsheets and other office or Internet-related apps. The Mountain View-based company offers the package for free to colleges and universities.
The plaintiffs say that despite assurances from Google that it would not use access to university email communications to compile information they could then turn around and sell, the company did exactly that.
“Google denied that it was scanning Google Apps for Education users’ emails for advertising or other commercial purposes and misled educational institutions into believing their users’ emails were private,” the complaint says. “Google took deliberate steps to conceal and deny its actions.”
The lawsuit includes plaintiffs from Harvard, Yale, the University of Michigan, the University of California-Berkeley, the University of Maine, the University of Arizona, Boston University, New York University, Northwestern and the University of California-Santa Cruz.
The universities included language in email-system agreements that assured students, faculty and staff that Google would not track their emails or scan their communications for information. However, the plaintiffs don’t blame the schools: Google entered into contractual agreements with the schools that stipulated it would not scan or data mine but had no intention of honoring the agreement, the complaint says.
“Google knew that all relevant educational institutions were concerned about privacy,” the plaintiffs say, adding that privacy concerns were an explicit part of the negotiations with many of the schools.
The plaintiffs say that when the schools found out Google had been scanning emails and collecting information contrary to their assurances, they pressured the company to stop. Google responded by issuing a tepid response on its blog that said it was “taking additional steps” to “enhance the educational experience,” the complaint says.
The plaintiffs also claim Google has refused to release additional details to confirm it has ceased data collection or email scanning practices. The 175 named individuals also suspect the data collected during the approximately three-year period in question was or is being used by Google to enhance revenue.
“Markets exist for the sale or purchase of this information,” the complaint says. “Big data, which feeds on such information as raw material, is expected to top $48.6 billion in 2019.”
The plaintiffs are represented by Ray Gallo from San Rafael, California, who did not respond to an email requesting comment.
Google did not respond to an email requesting comment by press time.
Google settled similar claims involving its Gmail service — which also included a class of educational-institution plaintiffs — in 2014.
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