Posted February 23, 2011 9:09 am by with 2 comments

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Google can’t seem to get out of its own way sometimes. Of course, it is a big company that may have certain parts doing one thing while another part does another without real knowledge of each other’s plans. That happens in big business. Of course, you would suspect that there is some kind of algorithm keeping everyone in order, right? If it is, it certainly doesn’t have a “WTF?” filter on it.

Apparently there needs to be some good old fashioned human supervision based on some of the decisions coming out of the Googleplex these days. The latest is the fact that Google collected the final four digits of the entrants of an art contest whose entrants were kids. Google claims a ‘no harm, no foul’ on this one but just the idea of it happening is enough for a raised eyebrow or two.

As Silicon Alley Insider reports

Google asked parents to enter the last four digits of their children’s Social Security Numbers, as well as their city of birth and age, as a condition to enter a Google-sponsored art contest.

While it is uncertain of any of the parents thought this request was out of hand (although one wonders if a parent should willingly give up this data for the sake of Junior’s art sensibilities in the first place) it came to the attention of someone who decided that more questions should be asked and he asked them on the Huffington Post which is the online equivalent of a year round celebration of the Festivus Airing of Grievances. This time it was done by a documentary film director, Bob Bowdon. He postulated

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 someone who didn’t even understand that such a disclosure was happening.

A stretch for sure and even he admits that he has no evidence of this being Google’s intent (or there being any intent other than to separate entries and prevent duplicates). Of course, it is fun to throw out there though and it does get links and page views so nice work, Bob (cut to HuffPo management smiling and giving polite golf applause).

But back to this ‘story’. Google was shown the error of its ways. Back to SAI.

Some of the people who tipped Bowdon off about the story sent an email to the FTC on February 17 wondering if it was even legal to solicit kids’ Social Security Numbers.

As one of my kids would say “Uh oh, potatoes!” Google quickly responded by changing the form and releasing the following explanation of why this even happened in the first place.

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.

OK, so here is my question. Well, maybe a few questions. That information had to be entered into some system or record to make the determination of what Google was trying to figure out, right? We all know how those pesky ‘non-entered’ pieces of data can leave a trail. In other words, that statement is a bit ridiculous for us to swallow even though it is likely that the intent of the statement is genuine. If collecting this data even seemed a little odd wasn’t there another way? Couldn’t there have been a PIN created rather than asking for that kind of information?

As you know, I really like Google, for the most part. I think that in an overall sense what they do is incredibly beneficial to society for all kinds of reasons. It’s moves like this, however, that make one wonder. This was something that was given wider attention and Google quickly pulled its hand back from the data cookie jar. In fact, Google called the whole timing of the FTC letter and their removal of the information from the form as a coincidence. Ok, Goog, we trust you!

By the way, wasn’t there also the ‘accidental’ collection of data from their Street View drones roaming the countryside as well? Hmmmmm. Whoops! Our bad!

With stuff like this happening, you start to wonder if Google is being consulted regarding privacy issues by Mark Zuckerberg.

Anyway, this may be all a big dust up over nothing but it does show that data collection is the name of the game and the big players are not afraid to push any envelopes at all since big data = big money.

How do you feel about this one? Is it the honest mistake that Google portrays it as or is it a warning to the rest of us? As the personal data jackpot gets bigger and the stakes get higher is that the old sales phrase “better to ask for forgiveness than for permission” mantra is alive and well in Mountain View? Should we all be concerned?

  • tjdestry

    How would a PIN help prevent multiple entries?

    A street address could have done the same as the SS# — since we’re assuming that nobody is checking these except for the winner. That is, if you win, you’d better have won with the entry that came from your true address or (as they did it) carried your true SS#.

    But a PIN wouldn’t help — If I had made multiple entries but knew which doodle won, I’d know which PIN I should enter to qualify for my prize, n’est-ce pas?

    • You have just ID’d why I don’t work for Google. The point was that there must be other ways to make sure duplicates don’t occur than asking for such a piece of data. Sorry for not being as perfect as most.