Hood sues Google for mining student data

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Kayleigh Skinner/Mississippi Today

Attorney General Jim Hood discusses pending litigation against Google, Inc. on Jan. 17, 2017.

Attorney General Jim Hood’s office is suing Google, Inc. for allegedly mining data from email accounts of public school students.

Hood announced the lawsuit at a press conference Tuesday afternoon, where he told reporters his office filed litigation on Jan. 13. The search engine giant violated the Mississippi Consumer Protection Act by failing to uphold the terms of a pledge the company signed in 2015, Hood said.

Google signed the “K-12 School Service Provider Pledge to Safeguard Student Privacy,” which requires the company to refrain from collecting, using or sharing a student’s personal information unless it was necessary for authorized educational purposes.

However, the company “tracks, records, uses, and saves the online activity of Mississippi’s children, all for the purpose of processing student data to build a profile, which in turn aids its advertising business,” the complaint states.

The complaint was filed in the Chancery Court of Lowndes County, and states Google used “unfair and deceptive trade practices that pertain to Google’s statements about its processing of data and account information pertaining to Mississippi K-12 students” who use the company’s G Suite for Education.

“We filed this suit because we have the proof necessary to prove a case,” Hood said.

Hood said his office did not know how many students or districts were affected specifically, but the complaint states Google provides G Suite services to about half of the state’s public K-12 schools.

Google does not clearly disclose what information it collects and how and if that information is used, the suit alleges.

“Are they selling this information to third parties, or are they just using it for themselves for advertising?” Hood asked. “There’s a lot of questions we have about this information.”

The suit comes amid a separate legal battle between the state’s top lawyer and Google. In October 2014, Hood subpoenaed Google for information that he said contributes to illegal activity. Google did not comply with Hood’s subpoena and instead sued him in federal court.

In court filings, Google claimed it cannot be held responsible for what others post online, which is a protection granted to them in a 1996 federal law called the Communications Decency Act.

A federal district court judge ruled in Google’s favor in 2015, shutting down Hood’s investigation. But the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals overturned that decision in April, which allowed Hood to continue the investigation.

Skeptics pointed out that documents released in the Sony hack of 2015 showed a large portion of Hood’s subpoena was drafted by Motion Picture of America (MPAA) attorneys. He withdrew the subpoena later in April and the case was dismissed in July 2016.

“We found out that this company doesn’t work well with assisting entities in trying to find out what they’re doing,” Hood said Tuesday. “They sued us and all we were doing was asking questions.”

The complaint filed Friday requests an injunction against Google and civil penalties of $10,000 for each account affected for “exploiting some of Mississippi’s most vulnerable citizens.”

Google was not immediately available for comment Tuesday.