'Google outed me'

'Google outed me'

Summary: In light of news that a high-profile outing resulted in one transgender woman's suicide, Violet Blue re-examines Google's outing of transgender users with its ongoing Google Plus privacy failures.


If you haven't heard about it by now, last Wednesday, ESPN's Grantland website published an article called Dr. V’s Magical Putter by Caleb Hannan. It was supposed to be a profile about a golf club, but instead its purpose - and dramatic climax - was to out the club's inventor as transgender.


The inventor’s name was Dr. Essay Anne Vanderbilt. She had agreed to be the subject of the story reluctantly, and only if Hannan wrote about "the science, not the scientist."

As Hannan investigated Vanderbilt, he found out that her academic background didn't add up, and he also learned that she was transgender.

Upon learning this, Hannan told her he was going to break the agreement not to write about her personal life and reveal her transgender status without her consent. He then outed her as transgender to her investors and colleagues, and went forward with an article that was intended to out her online, and to the world.

After being outed to her colleagues, and before the article was published, Dr. Essay Anne Vanderbilt killed herself.

It reminded me about another transgender woman who was recently outed without her consent - by Google Plus.

A woman was using her old (male) name at work, and when her Android phone updated to KitKat - with Google+ integrating chat and SMS into "hangouts" - this is what happened when she texted a coworker:

Google's response was that her outing was "user error" - Google blamed her, the user for not understanding the new, confusing integration.

ESPN Grantland editor Bill Simmons issued a 2,700-word statement where he lamented twice for failing his writer Hannan, but never once expressed concern for failing Ms. Vanderbilt.

One could argue that ESPN may not have caused Ms. Vanderbilt's suicide, but its actions in outing her have been acknowledged by ESPN itself and the general public as having played an active, key role in her death.

(Grantland founder Bill Simmons has since posted a letter to his readers apologizing for outing her saying, "I don’t think [Hannan] understood the moral consequences of that decision, and frankly, neither did anyone working for Grantland."

Vanderbilt did not want to be out. She wanted to blend in. And though some have been quick to point out that her world would have crumbled had she not been outed as trans, but simply found out as having made up her credentials - those people aren't familiar with the world of sports entrepreneurialism.

Vanderbilt would have merely joined the ranks of sports entrepreneurs who got caught changing their background. Michael Vick, Kevin Hart, Tim Johnson, Nick Saban, Miguel Tijada, Manti Te'o, Rosie Ruiz and George O'Leary are just a few.

And like the people in that list, Vanderbilt would have been busted but if her product or performance was great on its own merit, she would have recovered.

Instead, she was outed as a transgender woman to someone she works with, and before she was to be outed to the world, rather than go through this hell all over again, she took her own life.

Since the release of the latest mobile software Android 4.4, codenamed KitKat, the instant messaging app Hangouts has become the default text-messaging app on phones and tablets running with the newly installed operating system.

But Sorenson wasn't the only transgender person made unsafe by Google+ in Google's ruthless objective to use Android for reorganizing peoples' lives to suit Google's bottom line.

Four days later on January 7, transgender Android user Zoe posted to Google Product Forums > Hangouts that she now needed to change her name and gender display. She did not receive a response.

The same day (and While Ms. Sorensen was waiting fretfully for her employer's HR person to return to work) Android user Nora posted "Legal name instead of actual desired/registered name shows up in Hangout History" to Google Product Forums > Google Chat:

I'm transgender... this account was registered using my preferred name, Nora, but when I look at hangout histories, certain locations on my android phone, and a few other places, I see my legal name popping up instead.

I don't remember actually giving this detail to Google, nor can I find anywhere within the settings where anything other than "Nora" is listed... I don't know how many other people can see me listed as such, but it's really kind of unpleasant and outing, and a bit triggering really...

The issue with identity and Google+ Hangouts overwriting people's Gmail and SMS contacts has been trans-unfriendly since its rollout. One woman worried about the privacy of her transgender sister's identity wrote in Google's Forums (Gmail),

My sister is transgendered and has yet to legally switch to female, and because of this has yet to change her name on her Google+ since she has professional contacts on her page.

(...) Now that I have used the video chat option on Hangouts, everything is reverting back to her old name.

She did not receive a response.

After Google called Erika Sorensen's outing "user error" writer Lexi Cannes commented on the matter January 8, saying "Google is facing increased complaints that they are dismissive of privacy errors triggered by upgrades and other changes. Transgender issues with Google began the day Google+ was launched."

In my eyes, finding this distraught post from a Google+ user one month after Plus launched brought Cannes' comments and Ms. Vanderbilt's suicide full circle:

I am FTM transgender, and outside of this channel (which is meant to be detached from my personal, real-life acquaintances) I have not come out yet.

[the way FTM people are treated when they come out] sickens me and has pushed me farther and farther into the closet to the point where I fear I will not be able to get out before I end up killing myself out of stress.

When I opened up my youtube page today, I was greeted by my birth name, the one that people know and call me by in my outside life, attached to the google+ connection bar just under my profile picture.

(...) I frantically searched through the google+ page and the youtube settings and found no option to remove connections. Eventually, I was forced to delete my entire google+ account, hoping that would at least remove my legal name from my home page... But it DIDN'T.

My youtube home page still displays that information loud and clear, even though I DE-ACTIVATED MY ACCOUNT.

This does not make me feel safe. I feel like my personal privacy as a human being has been stolen from me. So please, if anyone can tell me how to permanently remove google+ and facebook connections from the new page, it would mean so much to me.

I want to be a part of a safe community.

This, Ms. Vanderbilt might have said. What he said.

On some level, I want to imagine that Google will fix this.

I don't want to think that controlling our own identities doesn't matter to Google; or it's as if to Google we are the faulty parts of its machine. Or we are Google Plus with a body vaguely attached. Or to Google, the problems are our own faults, and any calls for respect or privacy in a painful world are just annoying to Google, which has better things to do, like terrify us with the privacy nightmare of Google Glass and making bulk data consolidators' jobs of cataloging our personally identifying information easier.

Commenting on Dr. V’s Magical Putter, writer Max Potter was quoted on Nieman Storyboard saying,

I think that piece is emblematic of so much of what I think is wrong with what’s happening in journalism today. We’ve got journalism and journalists struggling more than ever before to make a name and a living, and thereby more and more pressure on landing an amazing story.

We’ve got less and less staff and experience, fewer and fewer “adults” around, more and more talented kids desperate to make a name and very little mentoring. And, seems to me, we still have this (white) male dominated journalism elite, with their myopic, pseudo-macho ideas of what truth and the pursuit of it means.

And … this is what we get.

If this is what we get, then Google's little Plus project is a loaded gun pointed right at anyone whose privacy is what keeps them alive.

ZDNet has emailed Google for comment and will update this article if it responds.

Topics: Privacy, Android, Google, Legal, Google Apps

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  • Scroogled to the wall.

    This demonstrates a very excellent reason for getting off of and avoiding anything Google.
    • look who's talking

      microcrap invented that practice before google even existed.
      • What?

        Microsoft does not make a living off your personal information. Microsoft is a traditional software company. Google is a brand new kind of beast. You're talking apples and oranges.
        • but

          They're doing it now as well. Win8.1 irrevocably ties your PC OS with MSN Passport/Hotmail (whatever they call that stuff now) and AFAIK it can't be undone. So in that sense, they are at least as invasive as Google/Facebook.

          Oh, and MSN Messenger did a similar flip switch in its last days; one of the updates removed the ability of choosing a nickname/online handle, instead slapping your REAL NAME as your "nickname" with no option to change it. In that sense, MS probably did this before G+ started "outing" people.
          • Microsoft account not required for Windows 8

            You can always sign in with a local account for Windows 8; you don't have to use a Microsoft account. You can use a local account and sign in to specific apps with a Microsoft account. And unless you show your PC to someone or share a screen shot or other system information with the account listed, they won't see your account name.
          • and the market?

            I setup a windows 8.1 machine for a client the other day, and I didn't want it linked to a ms account..

            but we needed a metro pdf reader and the only way to install one was via the market... which did not give us any option but to use a ms account..

            how is that different to google? You can avoid putting a google account in android.. but you have to if you want to use the market. same same.
          • Microsoft Account needed

            Yeah, nobody's ever set up a Hotmail account with fake credentials...
          • But...

            many did have their real info there, mostly because they sent their personal email from there, and because up until that awful update, the name wouldn't show up publicly (only when you sent mail from that addy). Those who never put their full name didn't have their names outed, it was the ones that didn't know who had that happen to them. It was noticeable as during the span of 2 months I watched first how handles changed to "full real name" and then to "fake name" as soon as users found out about it.
        • Wrong about MSFT

          They started as a software vendor but they have a huge data harvesting infrastructure themselves and with the decline in the marketshare of their platform are making a public and concerted effort to emulate market leader Google. Ballmer already declared they were transitioning to devices and services from their old model.

          When you set up a new Windows 8 system you are repeatedly goaded to register with windows live. MSFT is pushing online services like outlook.com and office 365 in the cloud. Their latest game system intertwines with their on line services like none before. All of that sets you up to get "binged up the butt" scroogle style. And remember MSFT is the king of lock in so don't expect them to be really helpful in giving you control over what data you want to keep and where unless you pay big money.

          Google and Microsoft are two sides of the same coin. Lest you think apple is better don't get your hopes up. Long term over many years these data silo businesses could very well see their demise as this generation's compuserve, progidy and AOL. As tech advances and privacy and information management concerns impact the broader public the internet will revert back to a more distributed, federated approach as wad always intended. Your social activities and profile will be like email and could be hosted anywhere by anyone...even on a machine in your own home. That is how you avoid issues like in this article--unless the info is on a system within your control you must assume it is public knowledge widely traded. Don't use GMail. Don't use outlook.com. Don't use Apple anything. Don't use Facebook messaging to replace email. Instead pay for local services or if you have the means host your own servers. But most of all...don't share intimate information on line at all!
          Mark Hayden
        • really? You think Microsoft bing doesn't make money for your info?

          Bing pays Twitter and probably facebook to use your info on their search pages I believe..

          Just because bing fails to provide them any income that outweights it's cost.. don't believe Microsoft believe in user privacy.


          loads of results from this.. including investigations by the EU... seriously.. take a read of that and then tell me Microsoft cares about your privacy more than google?
          • Really nothing to do with anything

            as none of this goes visible when you use, say, Skype.
      • Get real.

        You dont even know what your talking about. People are freakin' DEAD and all you can do is think up absolute crap off the top of your head to drag Microsoft into it and make things up to make them look worse.

        This is why these lies and complete crap around XDNet is actually intollerable. Its not just a bunch of IT geeks squabbling over whos got the biggest tool, its gotten to the point of being idiotic, selfish uncaring self centered and moronic.

        Grow up and start living for the truth instead of dreams about the way you would like things to be.

    • This is yet another reason

      I'm glad I don't use that Android stuff.
      • Much better under a dictatorship eh?

        You can always live under a dictatorship regime like Apple, where choice is not an option, and you, your data, and everything you do online belongs to them!
        NSAs favourite phone company!
        • ummm

          I don't use either Apple or Android. I use BlackBerry for security and privacy reasons, and as much as it seems to be fashionable to troll BB users for sticking to a supposedly 'dying' brand, it seems it is one of the few remaining platforms that doesn't sell your privacy out.
        • No, who needs a dictatorship when you got the Matrix right??

          All the big IT companies are trying to sell you. Google lead the way and continues to do so.

          Lets not worry too much about number 2, 3 and 4 if we are shying away from Google #1 and ther cruddy behavior.

          In other words to the geeks that live on ZDNet fighting amongst themselves over whos #1, the fact that we are talking about dead people isnt a big deal. Lets just forgive #1 because there are others on the same path.

          Just nonsense. Call them all out if you like, BUT DO NOT excuse the real crappy policies and behavior of number 1 just because others are almost as crappy as them.
    • It's not about transgender.. It's not a topic of contention.

      What is the "branding iron on the arse" issue for me is what a pack of bullying, lying, manipulative, deceitful and dishonest arseholes the people running Google and their prodeucts really are.

      The outright arm twisting used to MAKE people join Google +, whether they want too or not, and tricking them into it, by defaulting all of their products, and everything to do with their lives - being signed up and into Google +.

      Including all of the people and events and photos, and videos and contacts and conversations and everyone that I have fucked and sucked, praised and put shit on, and everyone I have emailed or has emailed me, is suddenly LINKED, and publicly broadcast....

      Eric Schmidt and the rest of the corporate arseholes, should get the shit kicked out of them for what they have done with everyone.

      The basis of the relationship is I use their products, they shove their advertising in my face, and sometimes, I buy things from the companies who pay them to shove their advertising in my face.

      That is the deal.

      Putting all my photos, contacts, up for sharing, adding everyone who I have emailed as a friend in my public profile etc., etc., etc., for me and everyone else who likes the quiet internet life, just so shit head Schmidt can make more money by selling more peoples private data, to more people besides the NSA, all I can say is I look forward to the day when unscrupulous individuals get taken out by lynch mobs.
      Jahm Mittt
  • The suicide is unfortunate, but...

    ...this is not something one should do unless one is willing to endure the inevitable controversy. In general, it's wisest to behave as if there are no lasting secrets (I like my privacy too, but privacy can and is breached fairly frequently).

    If it's right (which I don't think it is), then it's right, even if it causes others to shun you. If it's wrong, then it's wrong, even if it's popular. In the end, people should do what they think is right, make whatever sacrifices are necessary to do that, and not apologize unless it's really a mistake.
    John L. Ries
    • The suicide is more than unfortunate. Period.

      This is very easy to say when you're secure in your own identity. I respectfully submit that unless you've walked a mile in the shoes of someone like this you don't know what you're talking about.