If you have a Google account, there’s all manner of technological synergy at your disposal. You can get transcribed voice mails from Google Voice sent to your Gmail, events mentioned in Gmail sent to your Google Calendar; you can access GChat off your Gmail, or recommend articles from your Google Reader on Google Buzz. Most of the time, it seems like extraordinary example of modern convenience. Other times, it seems like an invitation to an anti-privacy nightmare — at the hands of hackers, or the company itself. This is about the latter. Gawker has learned that David Barksdale, a 27-year-old former Google site reliability engineer, used access he got as the member of an elite technical group at the company to break into the user accounts of at least four teenagers that he met in a local tech group. In one case, Barksdale used account info to tap into the Google Voice logs of a 15-year-old when the boy refused to tell Barksdale the name of his new girlfriend.
Gawker’s source describes Barksdale’s actions as an aggressive violation of personal privacy, but not sexual. Barksdale was fired in July 2010 after his actions were reported to Google, but for months he violated the teens’ privacy without Google’s knowledge.
We’re not sure if this example of Barksdale showing off for a friend is the type of access only available to site reliability engineers, but we bet Consumer Watchdog is already working on their next Eric Schmidt ad:
It seems part of the reason Barksdale snooped through the teens’ Gmail and Gtalk accounts was to show off the power he had as a member of a group with broad access to company data. A self-described “hacker,” Barksdale seemed to get a kick out of flaunting his position at Google, which was the case when, with a friend’s consent, he pulled up the person’s email account, contact list, chat transcripts, Google Voice call logs—even a list of other Gmail addresses that the friend had registered but didn’t think were linked to their main account—within seconds. The friend wasn’t concerned; Barksdale seemed to him to be a “silly,” good-natured nerd.
Update: Google’s PR team reached out to Intel with a comment from Bill Coughran, Google’s senior vice president of engineering, “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.”