Why did Google ask for kids' Social Security numbers?

Google asks kids who enter its Doodle-4-Google competition for their birth city, date of birth and last four digits of their Social Security number. The company relents under pressure. But its reasoning is odd.

Sometimes, one really wonders what's behind Google's doodling.

Recently, if your kids were entering the company's popular Doodle-4-Google competition, Google insisted on knowing a little about you.

On its parental consent form, it wanted to know your date of birth. It wanted to know where you were born. It wanted to know your parents' full details. Oh, and it wanted the last four digits of your Social Security number.

Yes, despite the fact that you might only be seven.

According to New York magazine, this particular little grouping of information might make it very easy to identify who you really are.

Bob Bowdon, who directed a movie about corruption in public schools called "The Cartel" explained in the Huffington Post: "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."

Well, yes, and then?

"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," added Bowdon

There is no reason to believe that Google had nefarious intentions behind its request.

Indeed, a Google spokesperson emphasized the company's innocence by saying that this was the first time in the four years of the competition that Google had even asked for social security numbers.

The spokesperson added: "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 four digits of a student's Social Security number."

The definition of "limited" here might be up for limited discussion a little later.

The spokesperson continued: "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 four digits were not entered into our records and will be safely discarded."

And here we are asked, yet again, to trust Google. Because, well, the company is simply far more clever than we are.

You might decide that Google deserves the benefit of the doubt. You might think that its explanation is entirely plausible. Even though it was only after the FTC was informed about this very limited (but detailed) request that Google removed the four-digit requirement from the consent form.

However, sometimes spokespersons can say peculiar things.

Here's a little more from Google's spokesperson: "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."

Suddenly, I find myself feeling a little odd.

The city of a child's birth does not prove that he or she is a U.S. citizen. Many U.S. citizens were born in places far removed from, well, the United States. I happen to be one of those people. So I am more than a little perplexed that Google might attempt to justify it in that manner.

Could it be that Google's request was merely ill thought out? Or might there exist some slightly overzealous data-doodling in certain Google quarters?

 

Join the discussion

Conversation powered by Livefyre

Show Comments Hide Comments
Latest Galleries from CNET
10 gloriously geeky highlights from 2014 (pictures)
Busted! CNET readers show us their broken devices (pictures)
Take a closer look at the BlackBerry Classic (pictures)
Scout is big on custom home security (pictures)
Your rentable Middle-earth home away from home (pictures)