In a Huffington Post news release, reporter Bob Bowdon (director of "The Cartel") has discovered that Google has been asking for children to disclose the last four digits from their Social Security Numbers along with other personal information in order to enter a coloring contest.
The art contest, innocently called, "Doodle-4-Google" asks for the children’s city of birth, date of birth and the last four digits of the children’s SSN when registering online. What most people don’t realize is that a person’s city of birth and place of birth information can be used to make a statistical guess about the first five digits of their social security number. Put together with the given last four digits from the form, they can unlock access to a huge data source that marketers would certainly be willing to pay copious amounts of money for!
It is possible they may destroy the data, but it is more likely that they will keep the data. There is no evidence of any wrong doing on Google’s behalf and an updated registration form was released the next day that did not require the SSN information; although it still requires the child’s city of birth.
Google’s response to the inquiry posed by Mr. Bowdon on Feb 22, 2011 was:
"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."
"As for the city of birth: 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 brings up larger questions about the types of information that we routinely volunteer without a second though when registering or signing up on websites for various purposes. There are certainly companies with fewer scruples than Google and we need to be aware as consumers that most of this information is being distributes to others for more nefarious purposes.
Ultimately this issue falls in to the category of “caveat emptor” or, “buyer beware.” It is our own responsibility to protect our personal data from others. Always exercise extreme caution online. Only submit personal information to sites that you feel are trustworthy. And even then, never disclose any information that you are uncomfortable releasing.