I, Spammer (Or: How Google Made Me Evil)

Like the red light in the cockpit or the 2am phone call, that out-of-hours IM from a workmate comes with its very own sinking feeling. No extra charge.
Written by Rupert Goodwins, Contributor

Like the red light in the cockpit or the 2am phone call, that out-of-hours IM from a workmate comes with its very own sinking feeling. No extra charge.

It was around eight o'clock last night, and the evening routine chez Goodwins was looking good. The tea had been made, the wireless warmed up and the computer kicked into life. Normally, I get IMs routed to my phone - an HTC Desire running Android 2.2 - but it was still restoring itself following a factory reset.

Earlier that evening, I had been diagnosing a problem with GPS, which hasn't worked since I got the phone back from having its smashed screen repaired (I think the fixers didn't replace the antenna tail, but who wants to open their phone?).

Working through a set of options at my desk in the office, I finally arrived at the reset. Android 2.2 has an automatic back-up and restore system under the Privacy settings menu, but it's badly documented - and, worse, hidden on my T-Mobile version of the operating system. So I downloaded an app called MyBackup: the free version did what I wanted and lots of people reported good experiences.

Backing up to the internal microSD card was quick and reasonably simple. The factory reset - ah, how the finger hovers over that final confirmation - kicked in. After a couple of minutes being reborn, the phone asked me for my Google ID, which I gave it. Five minutes, later the restore started. But this was much, much slower than the backup: I slipped the phone into my jacket pocket and headed for home.

Which is where we came in. The phone had finished restoring on the bus ride back, and was looking perfectly innocuous. Unlike the IM on my desktop from someone at work (gulp) in the Ops team (double gulp) which said, and I paraphrase, "WTF?". Gulping was no longer adequate: I was forced to resort to old HitchHiker's Guide references.

The IM was soon joined by others, all expressing various mixtures of irritation and amusement. It turned out that I was spamming the company - sending out hundreds of diary event invites to mailing lists, sometimes with hundreds of people on them. W, as they say, TF?

Some background. We use Google email, calendaring and apps here at CBS Interactive, having recently switched over from Microsoft Exchange - a story to be told, at the right time, but not now. As a long-time Gmail user and Android fan, this is entirely to my taste, and I had my phone calendar sync'd to the main work calendar so I could always get those 15 minute meeting alerts when I was only half an hour away from the office.

What happened was: My Backup had faithfully restored my calendar, which had hundreds of old events in it. The phone had then dutifully sync'd to the work calendar in Google's cloud, in effect sending in hundreds of new events. Google decided - and this is the bit I have trouble understanding - to automatically send out invites to everyone who had been invited to those events in the first place, from my personal account. No matter that they were in the past, and no matter that my personal account wasn't actually on the invite list, no matter that I hadn't actually created the original event.

As these events included company-wide All Hands events, as well as invites from external contacts, the range, variety and potential embarrassment factors were high and delightful.

No actual damage has been done - although I've come in for a fair amount of what used to be called good-natured joshing, but my solicitor advises is now best thought of as actionable psychological damage in the workplace. But the potential for real nastiness is there.

What should happen? Well, Google should not do that - or at least, it should alert the punter before it does it and ask whether sending out thousands of invites to events in the past is what you want to happen. My Backup, which I note has been spotted playing its part in this madness before, should have some similar 'Do you really want this to happen?' option: as always, there's a good argument that it's just doing its job and shouldn't have to work around Google's madness, but hey. Its job is to look after the user.

As for me, I'm going to carry on not quite knowing what happens in the cloud. If I'd chosen not to restore my calendar, then things would have been better - but who chooses not to restore their most important live data from a backup? Cloud thinking has its gotchas. And if I hadn't restored my calendar, what would have happened if Google had decided my new, blank calendar had priority over the old version in the cloud? Hard to win that one by foresight alone.

Google - don't be evil. But don't be stupid, either.

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