Consumer Watchdog has sent a letter to the co-chairmen of the House Privacy Caucus, asking for hearings to inquire why Google solicited partial Social Security numbers for its Doodle 4 Google contest.
The two co-chairman of the caucus said later on Thursday that they have agreed to a hearing.
A Google spokesman acknowledged that the search giant had asked for the last four digits of the Social Security numbers of the children that had applied for this year's contest on parental consent forms to help weed out duplicate entries. The most recent version of the form, uploaded on Feb. 18, does not include that Social Security number field.
The fourth, most recent version of Doodle 4 Google launched in January. Students have a chance to take home a $15,000 scholarship and a $25,000 technology grant for their school.
Consumer Watchdog, which has kept a close eye on Google for some time, claimed that the combination of the partial Social Security numbers plus the birthplace and date of birth on the form could be used to infer the full Social Security number.
"This behavior is a recurring pattern with Google," Consumer Watchdog wrote to Rep. Ed Markey, D-MA, and Rep. Joe Barton, R-TX. "The company overreaches as it gathers more and more data, but when caught with their fingers in the cookie jar, Google executives cite their "Don't Be Evil" motto, mutter apologies and get back to business. For Google's data miners, more data is always better. As outgoing CEO Eric Schmidt as put it, the company's policy is to go right up to the creepy line, but not cross it."
Reps. Markey and Rep. Barton agreed. "We are deeply disturbed by recent media reports that Google may have engaged in sketchy practices with its Doodle 4 Google contest by collecting the social security numbers of children who participated in the contest. This is unacceptable," they wrote.
"As Co-Chairmen of the Bi-Partisan Privacy Caucus, we have long believed that consumers should have control over their own personal information," Markey and Barton agreed. "It is particularly important that stringent privacy protections are applied so that children do not have their personal information collected or disclosed. We plan to convene a Caucus hearing to discuss industry practices as they relate to online privacy, including protection of information about children. We have long focused on the issue of online privacy and safeguarding sensitive and personal information and we will continue to actively monitor developments in this important area."
Consumer Watchdog said that Google's elimination of the Social Security field was a result of a complaint with the FTC, a charge Google denied.
In a change from previous contacts, Google began accepting submissions directly from parents, rather than via schools, which allowed home-schooled children to participate.
"This year we started accepting doodles from kids even if their school hadn't registered for the contest," a Google spokesman said in an email. "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, all data concerning students that is collected by Doodle 4 Google is used only to administer the contest. The last 4 digits of the social security number were not entered into our contest records, and any forms containing this information will be safely discarded."
Google has been closely watched as it collects more data. A recent Gallup poll claims more than half of Americans are at least somewhat concerned about their privacy when using Google's services. And Consumer Watchdog cited the ongoing Google Wi-Fi "snooping" investigation in its letter.
But Consumer Watchdog has also been accused of being unfairly critical of Google, especially after a mammoth video advertisement against Google appeared in Times Square. TechRights.org has gone so far to claim that the organization has been hired by Microsoft to attack a competitor.