Google Allegedly Developing ‘Spy Tool’ To Use On Staff – Report

Google’s management are being accused of developing an internal surveillance tool that allegedly will be used to monitor attempts by staff to organise protests and discuss worker rights.

This is according to Bloomberg News, which reported that it had obtained a copy of a memo written by a Google employee. The publication also cited three Google employees who requested anonymity because they are not authorised to talk to the press, as its source.

This is not the first time that reports have surfaced of worker discord at Google. In April staff activists at Google reportedly held a “town hall” meeting, in which they alleged that Google regularly retaliates against employees who speak out.

Staff spying?

The Bloomberg article however details how Google staff reportedly discovered that a team within the company was creating the new tool for the custom Google Chrome browser, which is installed on all workers’ computers and used to search internal systems.

According to the employee memo, the tool would automatically report staffers who create a calendar event with more than 10 rooms or 100 participants.

The most likely explanation, the memo alleged, “is that this is an attempt of leadership to immediately learn about any workers organisation attempts.”

But Google has rejected this allegation completely.

“These claims about the operation and purpose of this extension are categorically false,” a representative for Alphabet’s Google told Bloomberg. “This is a pop-up reminder that asks people to be mindful before auto-adding a meeting to the calendars of large numbers of employees.”

Google said the tool was just a Chrome extension, and was prompted by an increase in spam around calendars and events.

Google insisted it doesn’t collect personally identifiable information, nor does it stop the use of calendars but rather adds a speed bump when employees are reaching out to a large group.

The Chrome tool is apparently expected to be rolled out in late October, according to the employee’s memo, which was posted on an internal message board earlier this week.

Two other Google staffers in California said the tool was added to their work computers this week.

And another employee said the issue was the most requested topic to discuss at the weekly all-staff meetings, typically held on Thursdays.

Poor relations

There have been signs of internal tensions within Google for a while now.

On 21 October, several dozen workers at Google’s office in Zurich reportedly held an event about workers’ rights and unionisation, despite their managers’ attempts to cancel it.

In September contract workers for Google in Pittsburgh voted to join the United Steelworkers union.

But the biggest bone of contention in the past 18 months has been caused by sexual harassment concerns.

In November 2018, 20,000 Google staff around the world staged a mass walkout to protest at the lenient treatment and payouts for executives accused of sexual harassment.

Two of the organisers of that November global walkout, Meredith Whittaker and Claire Stapleton, had circulated a letter internally to other Google staffers, alleging they were being punished for their activism.

More publicity came when the New York Times published an article in 2018 that alleged that Google had protected three senior executives from allegations of sexual misconduct, which allegedly included the father of Android Andy Rubin.

Rubin stepped down from his position as Android boss in 2013, and eventually left Google altogether in October 2014.

Rubin however has denied the sexual misconduct allegations and has said that the New York Times story contained ‘numerous inaccuracies,’ and wild exaggerations about his compensation.

But matters were not helped in March this year, when court documents revealed a very senior Google executive had been paid a huge amount of money as part of a controversial severance package.

Amit Singhal was reportedly paid as much as $45m according to some media reports, after he was allegedly forced to resign from the search engine giant, after a sexual assault investigation.

Google staff have also protested against a number of Google projects, including a censored search engine in China (Project Dragonfly) and a contract with the Pentagon to analyse drone footage (Project Maven).

Quiz: What do you know about Google?

Tom Jowitt

Tom Jowitt is a leading British tech freelancer and long standing contributor to Silicon UK. He is also a bit of a Lord of the Rings nut...

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