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  • October 2014
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To Take or Not to Take … Childrens’ IDs

Bob Bowdon, author of “The Cartel,” roiled the blogosphere with his posting about Google’s “Doodle-4-Google” art contest.  The original parent consent form included a request for the child’s city of birth, date of birth and last four digits of the child’s Social Security Number.  Bowdon noted that with this information, Google could make a “statistical guess” about the first five digits of a person’s SSN, which would enable them to identify each individual.  That information could be “linked to other databases to target advertising.”  And people thought that Google was only giving away a T-shirt to each state finalist… 

Google’s response to Bowdon’s article was as follows:  “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.”

Since Google’s business model is based on advertising (not that there’s anything wrong with that), it was reasonable for Bowdon – and others – to raise questions about the real purpose of requiring so much information just for an art contest.  And while Google’s response states that it can distinguish separate contest entries with less information, the company could have avoided the controversy by taking such steps in the first place.  At the very least, the company should inculcate its employees with more sensitivity to potential pitfalls regarding its business practices; after all, the Google mantra is “don’t be evil.”  Not everything should be about collecting information; it is OK to just have a fun art contest, even if a kid sends more than one drawing.  As Bowdon suggested, click on Bing or Yahoo, and “You just might find what you’re looking for.”

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