A few days ago, I noted that it’s a little scary how much information Google carries about its users online activities. Google hosts your email, calendars, web searches, documents, and maps (not to mention pictures of your street). And health data, too.
David Barksdale, a 27-year-old former Google engineer, repeatedly took advantage of his position as a member of an elite technical group at the company to access users’ accounts, violating the privacy of at least four minors during his employment, we’ve learned. Barksdale met the kids through a technology group in the Seattle area while working as a Site Reliability Engineer at Google’s Kirkland, Wash. office. He was fired in July 2010 after his actions were reported to the company.
It took Google four months to catch on. This from the company that has access to more data than any single entity in history, short of the Almighty Himself.
And what exactly was the creep doing? Amongst other things, he was spying and taunting the teens.
In an incident this spring involving a 15-year-old boy who he’d befriended, Barksdale tapped into call logs from Google Voice, Google’s Internet phone service, after the boy refused to tell him the name of his new girlfriend, according to our source. After accessing the kid’s account to retrieve her name and phone number, Barksdale then taunted the boy and threatened to call her.
When Google executive engineer was alerted to the activities, he thanked the person and told them he would take care of it, but it wasn’t until later, when follow up contact was made, that Barksdale was actually fired. Even then, Google has not been clear about the extent to which Barksdale abused his access to user information, though they did say this in their own defense:
“We dismissed David Barksdale for breaking Google’s strict internal privacy policies. We carefully control the number of employees who have access to our systems, and we regularly upgrade our security controls–for example, we are significantly increasing the amount of time we spend auditing our logs to ensure those controls are effective. That said, a limited number of people will always need to access these systems if we are to operate them properly–which is why we take any breach so seriously.”
Bill Coughran, Senior Vice President, Engineering, Google
Let’s hope they are upgrading those “strict internal privacy policies” sufficiently. They obviously caught on to what Barksdale was doing, but only after they were alerted by the parents of the teens he was spying on. Did he do more? Were others affected that never came forward?
It’s unclear how many accounts Barksdale inappropriately accessed while employed by Google, or if the company has conducted a thorough investigation into possible privacy abuses by other employees. (Calls to Google for comment were not returned.) It’s also not clear what measures are in place to prevent Google staffers from snooping on users.
The Barksdale case comes as Google has attempted to address concerns about privacy by encrypting Gmail to protect messages from hackers, and bysimplifying its privacy policies to make them more comprehensible to users. Ironically, just last week Google launched its Family Safety Center, dedicated to helping parents keep their children safe on the Internet. But as this disturbing incident suggests, the biggest threat to kids’ privacy might be Google employees themselves.
(italics added for emphasis)
The question I want to know is: why aren’t criminal charges being filed? And was there a settlement to the individuals spied on?
This isn’t the only employee that Google has fired for privacy violations. TechCrunch reports that it’s actually the second. Getting fired is one thing; criminal charges is another and would be a far greater deterrent to others violating that privacy, both at Google and Facebook, to say nothing of other companies that watch your online actions.
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