Why Was Google Collecting Kids' Social Security Numbers?

Art contest requires data to pull all-powerful digits on thousand of kiddos

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Did Google just become evil? The search giant created an art contest for kids called Doodle-4-Google, which sounds all cute and sweet and everything until you realize that it might have been a horrible ruse to get the Social Security numbers of thousands of our nation's innocent youth! Bob Bowdon, director of the education-corruption documentary The Cartel, noticed that to enter the contest, parents had to fork over their kids' birthday, city of birth, and last four digits of their Social Security number. With those three pieces of data, it's apparently relatively easy to guess someone's full number.

Google could make a lot of marketing money from that information, New York's Nitasha Tiku writes, though Bowdon admits he has "no evidence that Google will use or sell this information for marketing purposes." On the other hand, Tiku notes, Google stopped asking for the last four digits a mere 26 hours after the FTC was alerted. "Okay, class. Who wants to send in a doodle under the theme 'Be sort of evil until someone figures it out'?" Tiku says.

The incidentraises a lot of questions. Among them:

  • Why does Google need your "last four" for an art contest? Is this like requiring an SSN to claim lottery winnings? (If so, perhaps this is understandable?)
  • What would a hypothetically profit-driven evil Google do with the social security numbers of a bunch of kids? It's not like they have credit cards or something, right?
  • But what if it's an investment so future purchases can be tracked?!
  • Seriously, did parents really not understand they were giving out their kids' social security numbers?
  • How long can Google continue to not be evil before it succumbs to temptation???
  • Are we idiots for being so paranoid about technology or idiots because we're not paranoid enough?!?!
Update: Google has released a statement on the controversy, saying they have stopped asking for kids' Social Security numbers for the contest:
This year we started accepting doodles from kids even if their school hadn't registered for the contest. To help us keep entries distinct and remove duplicate entries from any particular student, we asked parents for limited information, including the last 4 digits of a student's social security number. We later updated our forms when we recognized that we could sufficiently separate legitimate contest entries while requesting less information. To be clear, these last 4 digits were not entered into our records and will be safely discarded.
The city of birth helps us identify whether contestants are eligible for the contest, as winners must be either U.S. citizens or permanent legal residents of the U.S. The information isn't used for any other purpose.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.