Skip to main content

Google takes heat for collecting kids’ Social Security Numbers

doodle-4-google-social-security-numbers
Image used with permission by copyright holder

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?

Topics
Andrew Couts
Former Digital Trends Contributor
Features Editor for Digital Trends, Andrew Couts covers a wide swath of consumer technology topics, with particular focus on…
Best Buy’s deal of the day is $150 off the MacBook Air M2
A woman working on a 2023 MacBook Air with M2 chip.

For Mac lovers, Best Buy has one of the best laptop deals at the moment with $150 off the MacBook Air M2. Usually priced at $999, you can buy it for $849 right now making it great value for anyone who wants to get involved with the Apple ecosystem without breaking the bank. Stylish and speedy, this is a laptop that will suit mostly everyone from students to people working from home or commuters. Here’s what you need to know before you hit the buy button. As always with such good deals, bear in mind that you could miss out if you wait too long.

Why you should buy the MacBook Air M2
One of the best laptop brands for reliability and being high quality, buying a MacBook Air is an investment that will last. While Windows-based laptops can lose their lustre over time, MacBooks tend to keep going for longer. While the MacBook Air M2 doesn’t have the latest Apple silicon -- the M3 -- it still offers fantastic performance. The M2 chip has an 8-core CPU and 10-core GPU and this model is still considered to be the best MacBook for everyone. This particular model comes with 8GB of memory and 256GB of SSD storage which is sufficient for all everyday tasks and saving documents easily.

Read more
How to set up Windows 11 without a Microsoft account
microsoft surface laptop 5 review 04

The best way to use Windows 11 is with a Microsoft account. You can sync different settings, use the Microsoft Store to download apps, and restore Windows by using backups from OneDrive. All of this is part of the reason why prompts to use a Microsoft account with Windows 11 will show up during initial setup of the operating system.

Read more
Alienware sale: Get up to $1,000 off gaming laptops and PCs
The Alienware x14 R2 gaming laptop on a desk.

There’s a huge sale on all things Alienware at Dell right now meaning some fantastic gaming laptop deals and gaming PC deals are yours to snap up. That includes some surprisingly affordable gaming rigs right up to some maxed out options too. If you’re looking to treat yourself to a new gaming setup, take a look at the full sale for yourself. There are over 20 different models in the sale so there are plenty of options. If you’re not sure where to begin, keep reading and we’ll guide you through our favorite picks.

What to shop for in the Dell gaming PC sale
Dell is one of the best gaming laptop brands so checking out the best gaming laptops it makes is the perfect starting point. One of the more inexpensive options is the which is down to $1,400 from $1,750. It has an AMD Ryzen 7 7745HX processor, 16GB of memory and 1TB of SSD storage. Even better, it has an Nvidia GeForce RTX 4060 graphics card teamed up with a 16-inch QHD+ screen with 2560 x 1600 resolution, 240Hz refresh rate, and 3ms response time. It’s a perfect entry point to the gaming laptop world.

Read more