Thursday, February 24, 2011

Why does Google want your kids' Social Security number?

Why Has Google Been Collecting Kids' Social Security Numbers Under the Guise of an Art Contest?

As the director of The Cartel documentary, one of the things I learned was how poorly the traditional news media cover issues pertaining to children, in that case corruption in public education. Since the film's release, I often get contacted about other aspects of child protection that I would have never imagined -- stories that don't seem to get attention elsewhere. Like this.

What you're about to read hasn't been reported anywhere, and when it was brought to my attention, I could hardly believe it.

It turns out that the company sporting the motto "don't be evil" has been asking parents nationwide to disclose their children's personal information, including Social Security Numbers, and recruiting schools to help them do it -- all under the guise of an art contest. It's called, "Doodle-4-Google," a rather catchy, kid-friendly name if I do say so myself. The company is even offering prize money to schools to enlist their help with the promotion. Doesn't it sound like fun? Don't you want your kid to enter too?

What could be wrong with filling out a few entry forms?

A national, commercial database of names and addresses of American children, especially one that includes their dates of birth and SSNs, would be worth many millions to marketing firms and retailers.

Of course, data collection is not the reason Google gives for doing this competition. Their FAQ says it's because "We love to encourage and celebrate the creativity of young people..." etc. If that's so, then why on earth would the contest's original Parent Consent Form ask for the child's city of birth, date of birth and last four digits of the child's SSN? Along with complete contact info of the parents.

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 people who didn't even understand that such a disclosure was happening.

This kind of data can be linked with other databases to target advertising. It's worth many times more than what Google will spend on prizes (each State Finalist gets a T-shirt!).

In fairness, we have no evidence that Google will use or sell this information for marketing purposes. For that matter, it's possible they could throw the data away. (Care to guess the odds?) But to be absolutely clear, there's no evidence Google has done anything with this information at all, nefarious or otherwise.

It's also clear that children's social security numbers shouldn't be required for an art contest.

There's a second chapter to this story. Some of the people who tipped me off to it were wondering if the solicitation of children's Social Security Numbers was even legal. And so they sent emails to the Federal Trade Commission, the website and a couple of other places. That email went out on February 17. Twenty-six hours later Google released an updated Parental Consent form without requiring the last four digits of the child's SSN, although the form still inexplicably asks for the child's city of birth.

Meanwhile, the original PDF can still be found on lots of school websites, like this one. In other words, many schools are still distributing the original form, and many parents are no doubt still forking over their kids' social security numbers to Google.

At least the contest "privacy notice" is clear enough: "participation constitutes consent to the storage, use and disclosure of the Entrant's entry details...." It should really be called the "privacy waiver."

I sent all of this to Google's press office, and after 48 hours, they had offered no response.

So in closing, three simple ideas for you, gentle reader, to take away. (1) City of birth, when coupled with year of birth, can be correlated to social security numbers, so don't give it out just because a box appears on a form. (2) No public contest should ask for any part of a social security number, especially involving kids. (3) For internet searches, have you tried Yahoo! or Bing lately? (They're probably both improved since you last tried them.) You just might find what you're looking for.


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