Accused of developing spying tools to monitor employee activity, Google denies

Accused of developing spying tools to monitor employee activity, Google deniesAccused of developing spying tools to monitor employee activity, Google denies

On October 24, according to foreign media reports, Google employees accused Google leadership of developing an internal monitoring tool that will be used to monitor protests organized by company employees and discuss labor rights.

Earlier this month, Google employees said they found a new tool to be installed on the custom Google Chrome browser on all employees’ computers within the company, which is used to search internal systems. The matter was mentioned in a memo by a Google employee. The memo, posted on an internal Google message board, has been viewed by Bloomberg News and three other Google employees who requested anonymity.

The tool will automatically report if an employee creates a calendar of events with more than 100 attendees, according to the employee memo. The most likely explanation, the memo claims, is that “leadership wants immediate knowledge of any activity organized by employees.”

“The claims about this operation and its purpose are absolutely false,” a Google representative said. “This is just a pop-up reminder for employees to be vigilant before automatically participating in events with large numbers of employees.”

Google said the move was due to an increase in spam about the campaign. The company says it neither collects personally identifiable information nor stops using the calendar feature, but instead provides reminders when employees participate in group events.

Tensions are growing

The differing views surrounding the role of the tool underscore the growing tension between Google’s leadership and rank-and-file employees. On October 21, dozens of employees at Google’s Zurich office held an event on workers’ rights and union formation, despite previous attempts by the office’s managers to cancel the event. Last month, Google’s contract workers in Pittsburgh voted to join the United Steel Workers.

Over the past 18 months or so, Google employees have protested leadership’s handling of sexual harassment complaints and have launched targeted internal campaigns against some Google projects.

The employee memo said the new tool, installed in the Chrome browser, was designed to help Google employees apply new “community guidelines” that discourage employees from debating political issues, marking a shift from Google’s famously known Open cultural stance. A Google spokeswoman said in August that the company is also developing a tool to let employees flag problematic internal posts, and that Google is creating a team of moderators to monitor conversations on company chat boards.

What’s unclear, though, is whether the tool is the same new tool installed on employees’ Chrome browsers to monitor employee calendar activity. In this regard, Google did not immediately clarify and respond.

The new Chrome tool is expected to launch later in October, according to the employee memo. Two other Google employees in California said the tool was added to their work computers this week. Another employee said the issue became a widely discussed topic at Google’s weekly all-hands meeting. Google’s regular weekly meetings are usually held on Thursdays.

“Trojan Horse”

Work on the tool appears to have begun in early September, according to two Google employees who read the memo, who independently verified parts of the plan. The tool was reviewed by Google’s privacy group in late September, and it’s something the company must do before it plans to launch any new products. The group said the tool was allowed to roll out given “some concerns about respecting Google’s culture.”

Google said the tool had been in development for several months and passed a review for privacy, security and legal standards.

In early October, engineers working on the Chrome extension wrote that once installed on an employee’s computer, the tool would not be able to be removed by an employee and would be “used for policy enforcement,” according to two Google employees. The plan started to gain traction within the company, and by mid-October, some Google employees were barred from viewing internal design documents related to the project, the two employees said.

On an internal Google message board, employees mocked the plan. The new tool was considered “creepy” and compared it to a Trojan horse virus.

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