Published September 15, 2010
A Google engineer was fired for spying on the accounts of at least four minors -- the second instance of employees violating user privacy, Google confirmed Tuesday.
David Barksdale, 27, met the teens online while working as a Site Reliability Engineer at Google’s Kirkland, Wash., office, reported Gawker.com. The site claims that he exploited his position as a member of an elite technical group to keep tabs on minors of both sexes, though the harassment did not seem to be sexually motivated, sources told the site.
A Google official confirmed the report, explaining that Barksdale was dismissed for breaking the company'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," senior vice president of engineering Bill Coughran told TechCrunch.com.
"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,” he said.
Google also acknowledged an earlier case in which an employee was fired for spying, though it didn't involve minors. TechCrunch reporter Jason Kincaid applauded Google for acknowledging the issue -- unlike Facebook, where at least two employees were reportedly fired for accessing user data.
"I asked Facebook about this repeatedly, and they refused to directly answer how many times this had happened, if ever," Kincaid said.
Barksdale reportedly tapped into the Google Voice call logs of a 15-year-old boy he had befriended after the minor refused to tell him the name of his new girlfriend. Barksdale allegedly retrieved the girl’s name and phone number from the boy’s account and threatened to call her, all while acting as a Site Reliability Engineer for the search firm.
Site Reliability Engineers have access to Google’s most sensitive data and are given full access to users’ accounts they oversee, Gawker reported, citing a former Google Site Reliability Engineer.
Barksdale also purportedly accessed contact lists and chat transcripts and, in one instance, unblocked himself from a teen’s buddy list, reversing the teen’s actions to cut off communication with him.
Barksdale, a self-described hacker, confirmed to Gawker that he had been fired by Google, but refused to discuss the nature of his termination. Google did not immediately respond to requests for additional information.