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Google Engineer Fired for Spying on Teenagers

Gawker Media reports that 27-year-old David Barksdale was fired from his position as a Google Site Reliability Engineers (SRE) in July 2010 after he accessed the user accounts of at least four minors he met through a technology group in Seattle.

Though it's unclear how many people were victims of Barksdale's disregard for user privacy, his victims include both male and female users. One case saw Barksdale tap into call logs from Google Voice after a 15-year-old boy he had befriended refused to reveal his new girlfriend's name. Barksdale is said to have accessed his logs, obtained the girlfriend's name and phone number and then threatened to call her. Another time he unblocked himself from a user's Gtalk list, despite the fact that the user in question clearly didn't want to talk to him. Gawker cites an anonymous source that says Barksdale also accessed chat transcripts and contact lists, and in one case actually quoted from an IM conversation he had looked up without the user's knowledge.

Though it's definitely creepy and unsettling, Gawker's source doesn't believe Barksdale's harassment was sexual in nature.

"My gut read on the situation was that there wasn't any strong sexual predatory behavior, just a lot of violating people's personal privacy," the source said.

Gawker spoke to a former SRE at Google who was able to shed some light on how Barksdale was able to access this information.

"There's a whole bunch of trust involved. There's a lot of data inside Google, and I'm willing to bet some of it is really valuable. But for me and the people I worked with, it was never worth looking at."

SREs are responsible for responding to technical difficulties that crop up in all Google products. As a result, SREs have access to sensitive data as well as user accounts for the services they're tasked with over seeing.

Once they found out about the breaches in privacy, parents of the victims withdrew their children from the technology group where they had met the Google employee. Soon after, Barksdale was kicked out of the group. Google was informed in July and fired him.

Google's Senior VP for Engineering told TechCrunch that Barksdale was fired for breaching the search giant's internal privacy policies:

"We dismissed David Barksdale for breaking Google's strict internal privacy policies. We carefully control the number of employees who have access to our systems, and we regularly upgrade our security controls–for example, we are significantly increasing the amount of time we spend auditing our logs to ensure those controls are effective. That said, a limited number of people will always need to access these systems if we are to operate them properly–which is why we take any breach so seriously."

Read the complete story on Gawker.