Have you ever wondered whether far away in “Google Land” there is a nerdy looking computer expert tracking your every move around the internet? Scary thought, but one that became a reality last week.

David Barksdale, site reliability engineer at Google has been given the boot after abusing his position by tapping into the voice phone logs, contact lists and chat transcripts of minors, he even went as far as unblocking himself after a teen account owner blocked him out. On one occasion he flaunted the name and address of a 15-year-old’s girlfriend after the teen refused to disclose her name.

David Barksdale – now ex- Google Site Reliability Engineer

Parents made complaints about the abuse and subsequently Google sacked the self proclaimed “hacker” after an internal investigation. In the wake of many a Google privacy complaint (see my Google Buzz article), this doesn’t bode well for the search giant.

But can we really blame Barksdale? For sure, tapping into minors accounts is weird – it should however be noted that Barksdale’s activities were never sexual in nature – but how many other Google engineers are having a sneak peak at you intimate surfing activity, wouldn’t you if your fingers were on the buttons? Giving technically gifted graduates such access to such powerful tools is surely asking for trouble.

The Google privacy debate isn’t something that is likely to go away any time soon. People are becoming increasingly uncomfortable with one of the largest corporations in the world having access to all we do online, and more. The fact that Google tracks browsing activity as default is enough to disturb me. Yet amidst all this fear of being watched by one big nanny state, search engine optimization consultants need Google to do what it does. Without the availability of user trends and behavioural statistics, much of the work search engine optimisation firms do would be nothing short of stabbing in the dark, so to speak, not to mention the fact that the quality of the ‘internet experience’ would rapidly decline.

Whilst people like David Barksdale are a worry, no one has been stalked dangerously by any Google employee to date. And potential stalkers don’t need to work at Google to be a threat; personal information is out there if you are astute enough and strange enough to want access.

And, as Bill Coughran, Google’s Senior Vice President of engineering points out:

“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.”

It’s all well and good moaning about what Google know about us, but to have relevant content on demand, targeted advertising and quality search engine optimization consultants we need this big brother of ours!

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