Nothing that can be publicly available on the internet will be private for long. In the end information that can be used will be used, and not necessarily for the most noble purposes.
Case in point: Google, one of the largest internet companies in the world today, has a policy: “don’t be evil.” However, one of their (now former) engineers, 27 year old David Barksdale, repeatedly took advantage of his position as a member of an elite technical group at Google to access user accounts, violating the privacy of at least four minors during his employment.
One incident occurred with a 15 year old boy whom David befriended in Seattle while working as a Site Reliability Engineer at Google‘s Kirkland, Wash. office. According to Gawker.com, after the boy refused to tell David the name of his new girlfriend, Barksdale tapped into call logs from “Google Voice,” Google‘s Internet phone service. Once Barksdale accessed the kid’s account to retrieve the girlfriend’s name and phone number, Barksdale then taunted the boy and threatened to call her. This was only one case. In another incident, Barksdale unblocked himself from a Gtalk buddy list even when the teen in question had taken steps to cut communications with the Google engineer.
What motivated David Barksdale to compromise his position with stalker-like behavior is unclear. Though it’s believed that he simply wanted to flaunt his powers, and that was more the case than it being sexual in nature.
Only after the incident occurred and bloggers went wild on this topic, did Google post a statement confirming that it fired Barkdale for violating policy reasons related to his stalking:
“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
However, don’t expect Google to tell the world about each time it compromises privacy. Google already reports aggregate information to the government, and should the government control Google, the USA will turn into another Big Brother country. That’s scary.
CEO’s of other big-name sites have met with the government on privacy matters, like what Facebook did earlier this year in Washington. And, even if this isn’t the case, while Google may not be evil, there can still be evil Googlers. And who knows? What’s stopping a big company like Google from changing its policy ever so slightly?
The following Google documentary video was launched 4 years ago. In the video, someone asks Marissa Mayer, the Vice President of Search Product and User Experience at Google, why people should feel Google can be entrusted with personal information. Later, Ms. Mayer is asked how people would react to the knowledge that their “privacy” information can be divulged to the US government. In each case, Ms. Mayer looks clearly flustered. It’s worth the time to look at her reactions on the video clip. Especially take note on minutes 23:00 through 26:00.
The bottom line is, don’t rely too much on a third party service that is free and stores all of your information. Once you provide your information, it’s theirs indefinitely. Even when you delete an email message on Gmail or Yahoo Mail, for example, the message is never deleted. Rather, a “delete” reference is applied, and the message can be retrieved later on.
Therefore, beware of what you do on the Internet. The internet by definition is a public playground. Be smart about what you post or email. If certain private or potentially damaging information can be used against you, don’t post it.
The internet is a tool to be used with care. Like fire, use it properly and it will serve you well. Use it improperly or recklessly, like what Marcus Jordan recently did, and you may get burned.