Google fires employee for snooping on users

Google Inc. fired a software engineer for snooping on its users’ private information, the Internet search giant confirmed Wednesday.

The 27-year-old employee, David Barksdale, allegedly accessed information about four teenagers he met through a Seattle technology group, according to gossip website Gawker, which reported the incident Tuesday.

Barksdale, a self-described hacker whose job was to maintain and troubleshoot Google sites, had access to users’ personal accounts and information, Gawker reported. His interaction with the teenagers was not sexual in nature, the gossip site said.
Google declined to confirm details about the incident. In a statement, Bill Coughran, Google’s senior vice president of engineering, said Barksdale, an engineer in the company’s Kirkland, Wash., office, broke Google’s “strict internal privacy policies.” Coughran said Google controls the number of employees with access to its systems and is constantly increasing strict security measures.

Barksdale, who was dismissed in July, could not be reached for comment.

A similar reported incident that did not involve minors also resulted in the dismissal of an engineer, said a Google employee who was not authorized to speak about the topic. That incident was first reported by technology blog TechCrunch.

The privacy breach comes at an awkward time for Google. Federal regulators and lawmakers are weighing whether to make Internet privacy rules more stringent — a move opposed by Google and other Internet companies that argue the industry can regulate itself.

Google is also under scrutiny in the U.S. and overseas for collecting personal data from unsecured Wi-Fi networks through its Street View service that takes panoramic pictures from vehicles. Google also raised the hackles of privacy watchdogs when it rolled out a social networking service called Buzz that is used in conjunction with users’ Gmail accounts.

On Tuesday, Google said it was working on adding more social networking elements to its products, and the company called on rival Facebook Inc. to give it access to users’ information, if users give permission.

Google’s hiring process includes criminal background checks, according to a company white paper.

TechCrunch founder Michael Arrington said in a blog post that Google should have pressed criminal charges against Barksdale. But the Google employee said the company did not do so at the request of one of the families who wished to remain anonymous.

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