Gawker (along with several other sites) revealed Tuesday that a Google Site Reliability Engineer (SRE) named David Barksdale had accessed at least 4 Google accounts belonging to teenagers in his Seattle, Washington technology group and used the data in the accounts to harass the students. While every major Internet communications provider has engineers with this level of access to user data, it was, of course, Google who managed to get itself mired in another privacy debacle. What will be the collateral damage?
As a former Google SRE noted to Gawker,
"If you're an SRE, for instance, on Gmail, you will have access to mailboxes because you may have to look into the databases...You'll need access to the storage mechanisms," he explained, pointing out that in order to determine the cause of a technical issue with Gmail, an SRE might have to access emails stored on Google's servers to see if data is corrupted.
And yet, no matter how necessary these individuals are, or how many such individuals work for Microsoft with access to Live Mail accounts or work for Yahoo! with access to Yahoo! Mail accounts, this incident reinforces the public perception that Google is not only Big Brother for the new millennium, but is cavalier with our data. As reported in a second Gawker story,
David Barksadale...was actually the second engineer fired by Google for snooping on users. He was, however, the first to target kids.
How does this play when Google wants schools to adopt Google Apps for Education or wants large enterprises and government entities to move their data and communications into Google's cloud? Not well, obviously.
Although Google claims to have drastically improved their safeguards for ensuring the senior engineers don't access user data inappropriately, the system still fundamentally relies on trust. This isn't a bad thing and it's not yet possible to program the humans out of the system. While Google may have a great deal of well-deserved trust internally for its employees, public trust for Google is in relatively short supply.
I can just imagine the Microsoft sales pitches for on-premise implementations of Exchange Server and SharePoint:
MS Sales Guy: Look, we're all in with the cloud, right? But let's be honest: the only way to keep some David Barksdale nutjob out of your mail is to host it yourself with Exchange.
Acme, Inc. CTO: Yeah, but Google has great collaboration features.
MS Sales Guy: Are you kidding? So do we! Have you checked out SharePoint 2010? Host it in your datacenter and you won't have David Barksdale collaborating with your interns, if you know what I mean (wink, wink, nudge, nudge).
Acme, Inc. CTO: That guy was really creepy, wasn't he? OK, tell me about licensing...
[Death by PowerPoint ensues, but the sale is in the bag]
I'm being tongue-in-cheek, but even with Google's momentum and presence, this is one more reason for fence-sitters to think twice about going Google.