I just read this post at The Huffington Post which talks about the Doodle 4 Google competition. If you’re not aware, Doodle 4 Google is a competition that Google holds annually where students from K-12 can provide doodles of the Google logo and the winners can earn college scholarships and school grants and even have their doodle featured on Google. It encourages students to draw and think outside of the box. It actually sounds like a great competition with good intentions on Google’s behalf. Until the fine details are exposed. It turns out that the original entry form asked for the following information: child’s name, date of birth, city and state of birth, last four digits of the child’s social security number, address and parents name. This is pretty much all of the identifiers that a child has. The last four digits of a social security number have no place in any sort of art competition, especially one that involves children. Google would eventually remove that from the form, but not before the form was distributed to children so it may be too little too late. Google claims that this was used to ensure that there were not duplicative entries from the same student, but you’d figure the name, age and address would be more than sufficient. And as The Huffington Post points out, based on city and year of birth you can statically guess the first five digits of a social security number. They have not removed the city and state of birth of the child, stating that they use it to ensure that students are US citizens, even though you can be a valid US citizen without being born in the US.

So is Google taking this information and taking out credit cards in children’s names? Ok it’s not like that. In fact, there’s no way of knowing if this information is being entirely discarded or used for data mining. Here’s the privacy notice from the entry form and the rules in full:

5. Privacy Disclaimer: Any personal information collected during the course of the Contest by
Google will be used for administering this competition, or as otherwise set out in the Contest Rules. Except where prohibited by law, participation in the Contest constitutes the Entrant’s and his or her parent’s/legal guardian’s consent to the storage, use and disclosure of the Entrant’s entry details as set out in the Contest Rules.

12. Privacy Notice. By participating in this Contest, you agree that Google can collect your personal information, and that if Google cannot collect the required data, you may not be eligible to participate in the Contest. Any personal information collected during the course of the Contest by Google will only be used for administering this Contest and for other purposes as outlined in these Rules, and will be subject to the practices described in the Google Privacy Policy located at http://www.google.com/intl/en/privacy.html. You will have the right to access, review, rectify or cancel any personal data held by Google by writing to Google (Attention: Privacy Matters) at the Google address listed in Section 2.

I don’t want to get into the best interpretation of the rules and how they pertain to privacy, but if Google was collecting data merely for purpose of this contest and then discarding it, without retaining or using the information for any other purpose, they could have stated it that way and they chose not to. Again, there’s no way of knowing what, if anything, they are doing with this information. The simple question is, why? Why would a company who has recently come under scrutiny for privacy concerns not clarify what they are doing with this information so that they can make it clear that this is nothing more than an art contest and why are they collecting this level of information if it’s just for a contest?

I presume before handing out those CR-48 Chrome notebooks Google made sure there weren’t multiple entries and the like, right?  The application has been removed, but it was noted that you should “be prepared to provide Google with your name, address, and phone number. You will also have to spend about 15 minutes of your time answering a questionnaire about your browsing habits and technology preferences.” Far less personal/identifying information and that was in exchange for a free notebook.

I hope that they’re not using this across-the-country contest as a ruse to data mine children, but of course, the floor is theirs to set the record straight and since they have responded to The Huffington Post’s article, they are aware of the concerns raised.

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