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Google Stalker Shock: How Secure is Your Family's Information Online?


One ex-Google employee's indiscretions are bringing internet privacy to the forefront

An employee of Google was fired in July for reportedly using his position in the company to spy on the accounts of at least four minors. David Barksdale, 27, violated the company's privacy policy for at least four months before the company was notified.

According to Gawker, Barksdale met the four underaged teens through a technology group in the Seattle area while he worked as a Site Reliability Engineer for Google's Kirkland, Wash. office:

It's unclear how widespread Barksdale's abuses were, but in at least four cases, Barksdale spied on minors' Google accounts without their consent, according to a source close to the incidents. In an incident this spring involving a 15-year-old boy who he'd befriended, Barksdale tapped into call logs from Google Voice, Google's Internet phone service, after the boy refused to tell him the name of his new girlfriend, according to our source. After accessing the kid's account to retrieve her name and phone number, Barksdale then taunted the boy and threatened to call her.

In other cases involving teens of both sexes, Barksdale exhibited a similar pattern of aggressively violating others' privacy, according to our source. He accessed contact lists and chat transcripts, and in one case quoted from an IM that he'd looked up behind the person's back. (He later apologized to one for retrieving the information without her knowledge.) In another incident, Barksdale unblocked himself from a Gtalk buddy list even though the teen in question had taken steps to cut communications with the Google engineer. ...

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.

Barksdale was fired in July 2010 after Google became aware of the incidents.  The company has recently undertaken new efforts to try and ensure users' privacy, including email encryption services. To try and help families keep all users safe online, the company rolled out its Family Safety Center last week.

But Google's new and improved security measures would not have stopped an employee like Barksdale.  When it comes to the information you put online and your privacy, use your best discretion -- the safest option is to keep private information off the Web.

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