Sometimes it’s easy to forget that the most ubiquitous and pervasive areas of the Internet are run by humans. When you log on to a Gmail account, you take for granted the assumed privacy of your personal information. You tend to forget that there’s somebody on the other end making this all work. Sometimes, that person is given access to personal information in order to do a job properly. Sometimes, that privilege is abused.
David Barksdale, a former Google employee, was a site reliability engineer (SRE) at Google’s Kirkland, Washington office. SREs are able to gain access to private data on a fairly regular basis, in order to properly troubleshoot and fix problems anywhere in the Google-verse. According to Valleywag, Barksdale abused his powers as an SRE by snooping on various underage teens he met at a technology group in Seattle. He gained access to their Gmail inboxes, chat transcripts, and Google Voice phone conversations, among other things. The snooping does not seem sexual in nature, and is being looked at as simply a privacy breach, with no malicious intent.
Malicious or not, Google wasted no time in getting to the bottom of complaints made by some parents of the teens, and promptly terminating Barksdale from his position. In a statement, Senior Vice President of Engineering Bill Coughran explained how the breach could be allowed to happen.
"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."
As Google becomes ever more pervasive on the Internet, users still need to remember that it is a private company, with its own rules and regulations regarding privacy and employee access to data. While Google seems to be taking steps to increase monitoring of data access, this story serves as a reminder that the Internet is run by human beings, and that entrusting personal data to a company allows them to access that data, on their own terms.