While helping their kids submit art to Google's popular Doodle 4 Google competition, a few parents noticed something peculiar: The entry form required, among other things, the last four digits of their kids' social security numbers. Why on earth would Google need that particular information?
Venture Beat reports that the details requested on the Doodle 4 Google competition entry form included a child’s city of birth, date of birth, the last four digits of the child’s social security number, and complete contact info for the parents.
The gathering of this particular combination of information is apparently quite dangerous according to Bob Bowdon, the director of a documentary about corruption in the public-school system:
You see what Google knows and many parents don’t know is that a person’s city of birth and year of birth can be used to make a statistical guess about the first five digits of his/her social security number. Then, if you can somehow obtain those last four SSN digits explicitly — voila, you’ve unlocked countless troves of personal information from someone who didn’t even understand that such a disclosure was happening.
Yikes! Sounds scary. So why did Google collect that data anyway?
According to a statement given by the search engine giant to New York Magazine, the whole process was completely innocent — and practically necessary:
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.
There we go! All's well now, right? Sure, but Google's initial collection of data, which it could conduct the contest without, is inexcusable — even if it claims to have "safely discarded" it.