School Districts Part Of Network Working With Google To Collect Information
Let me just start by saying I love the internet. It allows me to connect to friends and family who live far away. It allows me to share ideas on a plethora of social networks like Pinterest and Facebook. I can use the internet to look up answers to almost any question I have. I am not against the internet. It is a useful tool. But any tool can be misused and people should be educated on the dangers of using a tool so that they can get the maximum benefit from it with the least risk.
The internet consists of several tools linked together to provide an overall product and service. First there is the access device: computer, tablet, phone, laptop etc. Then there is the signal transport, most often fiber optic cable, occasionally cell towers and even less frequent satellite signal. That infrastructure also includes things like servers and gateways. Lastly there is the software that organizes what I see on my screen, sends my typed text to specific users and lets all the different devices talk to each other by constantly converting and interpreting binary code to create words I can read or pictures I can see. The reason I am giving all this dry description will become apparent shortly.
This world wide web of devices, cabling and software for commercial use was created in the late 80’s and early 90’s. It’s original purpose was to allow researchers to communicate with each other. That is still a major use of the internet today. A little more history, if you will indulge me.
Vinton (Vint) Cerf is considered one of the fathers of the internet. He was working for DARPA on the Transmission Control Protocol (TCP) in the late 60’s tat would be used to transmit data from one researchers input device to another’s. Later, he became Vice President of MCI Digital Information Services who created the first commercial email service to be connected to the www in the mid 80’s.
In 1992 Cerf and Bob Kahn co-founded the Internet Society to provide leadership in education, policy, and standards related to the Internet. One of the stated missions of the Internet Society is “Championing public policies that enable open access.” They “establish and promote principles that are intended to persuade governments to make decisions that are right for their citizens and each nation’s future. Everything we do is based on ensuring that a healthy, sustainable Internet is available to everyone.” Clearly Cerf saw the benefit to his creation and wanted to make sure everyone could use it. He was also a big proponent of open access which includes access to data. That is the way researchers think. My dad was one for 40 years so I have some idea.
Jump forward a couple decades where data giant Google is out there bringing Cerf’s vision to fruition. They supply a host of internet services for “free” giving as many people as possible access to the wonders of the internet. I have to put that in quotes because we all know nothing is really for free, and the recent court case against Google is exposing what the costs of their free services are.
Thomas R. Burke and Jonathan Segal of Davis Wright Tremaine represented several media companies in the a suit filed against Google for their policy of collecting data from Google services like Gmail without the express permission or even knowledge of the users. They explained in a USAToday op ed piece,
“Back in 2010, Google was facing a vexing problem. It was losing out on a treasure trove of personal information from millions of Gmail users who were slipping through its chief analytical tool, known as “Content OneBox.” Anytime they accessed their email through Outlook or on their iPhone, Google’s data machine wasn’t there to capture it all. So it needed a way to sidestep the problem.
Within a matter of months, the company shrewdly moved the Content OneBox from Gmail’s storage area to the “delivery pipeline” — meaning that it could now scan messages before they were received.”
This could be justified as Google’s way of dealing with spam. How could something be sent to your spam folder before you read it unless Google had been reading it first? But Google was already on record in 2011 saying they would “begin building a profile about you based on all of your emails. It’s this profile that will then be used to deliver advertising to you.” This was never just about spam.
Chris Hoofnagle, director of privacy programs at Berkeley’s Center for Law & Technology explained the trouble with Google’s reasoning like this.
“The content one box infrastructure would allow Google to understand the meaning of all of our communications: the identities of the people with whom we collaborate, the compounds of drugs we are testing, the next big thing we are inventing, etc. Imagine the creative product of all of Berkeley combined, scanned by a single company’s ‘free’ email system.”
The suit is based on wiretapping law. Hoofnagle said, “It will be difficult for Google to claim that users and campuses consented to the interception of their communications, because over and over, campuses were assured that there would be no advertising in apps for education. Since school officials were in the dark about Gmail scanning, it will be difficult to argue that these school officials fairly obtained consent from students.”
Hoofnagle specifically mentioned school officials because schools are one of the biggest users of Google’s free education apps, especially their gmail service. In Missouri that refers to literally hundreds of schools. A little more history for you.
Missouri created the MOREnet (Missouri Research and Education Network) to “seek ways to further technology in education and the public sector.” It was formed back in 1991. When DESE brags that Missouri has been at the forefront of data collection and sharing, this is what they are bragging about. MOREnet was one of the first statewide higher education networks in the country. They began including K-12 public schools in their network in 2000. The MOREnet backbone, provided by Missouri Broadband Now, connecting the five major server centers was completed ahead of schedule in 2010. The MOREnet servers are located in the Missouri University system buildings.
And here’s where the connection of players gets dicey. MOREnet just recently announced an agreement with Google “to provide training and support to K-12 schools, that are MOREnet members, in the use of Google Apps for Education. Google Apps Education Edition allows schools to give Google’s communication and collaboration applications to their entire organization.” Those are the same apps cited in the Fread v Google lawsuit I mentioned. So all of our schools who are happily handing out “free” gmail accounts to students and faculty are caught in Google’s spying web. Since a minor can’t enter into a contract legally, parents should have been given a terms of service or consent form to grant their child a gmail account. Sadly, few if any did. And even if they had, the lawsuit alleges that it would be impossible for our students to give informed consent to having data collected from their email because Google failed to disclose that they were doing so.
Don’t let your school fool you by saying this doesn’t apply to them because they turned off the ad service. Hoofnagle said, “Hiding ads while analyzing data takes advantage of a key deficit users have around internet services: users only perceive profiling if they receive ads.” But the discovery in the lawsuit, even beyond the redacted parts of the documents, shows that Google is still collecting data, even when ads are turned off. They are building a profile about you based on all of your emails. And MOREnet has now become a partner in that data robbery by teaching districts how to open the door for Google.
The problem of misusing these tools did not start with Google. Email in particular has been a two edged sword for the internet. MCI and Vint Cerf in particular had an ethics complaint filed against it in February 2005 because MCI was providing the IP addresses used by Send-Safe.com, a vendor of spamware that uses a botnet in order to send spam (Interesting Fact: Today more than 70+% of the bandwidth of the internet is taken up by spam.) Initially MCI refused to terminate the spamware contract. Money was winning out over ethics. Eventually, however, MCI did terminate the contract with Send-Safe saying “the amount of heat it was getting was too much to handle.” At about the same time Cerf moved over to work for Google focusing on research into data management. Is it possible the ethical challenges of his work have followed him? Is it just coincidence that email is now the source of the problem for Google? I wonder if it is possible to turn up the heat high enough to affect a data giant like Google.
Getting rid of Cerf’s inventions is impractical if not impossible. They have become a ubiquitous tool that can be used for good or evil. The internet, as I said at the beginning, delivers a lot of good. The danger is in how we use it. We cannot afford to be uniformed users. I am, most embarrassingly, recalling the South Park episode that poked fun at the terms and conditions we all have blithely “agreed” to in order to use various software. In 2011 they were worried about Apple.
Maybe our districts should be re-evaluating how “free” the services are that they are getting from Google. It seems we can’t even really trust the terms and conditions they gave us so who knows what we are actually agreeing to.
I can’t help but notice that the name of this father of the internet is a homonym. The other word refers to someone who belongs to a landowner, who was bought and sold with the land. Could it be that the users of his invention will themselves become serfs to the owner of the digital landscape – that they will be bought and sold with it? Are people becoming just so much data?