We live in an age of shrinking privacy, where everyone shares just about everything, from what we ate for dinner to our doctors’ latest diagnosis. But one thing Americans most certainly should not share openly is a Social Security Number — the password to some of our deepest darkest secrets, the thing that can unlock our official identities to any schemer or misfit who might like to take advantage of us.
Which is why Google raised eyebrows this when it was reported that the company required parents to include the last four digits of their children’s Social Security Numbers when entering them into the annual “Doodle-4-Google” art contest, which awards a $10,000 scholarship, and up to $25,000 in technology funds, to one lucky K-12er’s school. Last year, the contest had more than 33,000 applicants.
The issue first came to light when an article by filmmaker Bob Bowdon, director of “The Cartel,” a documentary about the public school system, pointed out some chilling information 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,” writes Bowdon in Huff. Po. “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.”
Neither Bowdon nor anyone else has any evidence that Google was using the information for marketing purposes, or for any other nefarious means.
Regardless, Google quickly changed the requirements of the contest to not include the entry of Social Security Numbers 26 hours after the Federal Trade Commission caught wind of the SSN requirement. (Though it still requires children’s birth cities.) And after New York Magazine got in touch with Google about the story, the company released the following statement:
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.
So, problem solved. Right?