Google is threatening to fire employees in a crackdown on leaks about 'need to know' projects (GOOG, GOOGL)

Sundar Pichai

  • Google
    executives are clamping down on what information can and cannot be
    shared amongst internal teams, amid a wave of employee activism
    that has caused the tech giant to sideline numerous
    projects. 
  • In an internal email sent to employees last week and
    obtained by Business Insider, Google’s Chief Legal Officer Kent
    Walker re-enforced the company’s restrictions for sharing
    “need-to-know” information. 
  • Two current employees who spoke to Business Insider
    said Walker’s email appeared update Google’s policy, tightening the
    tech giant’s control over information being spread
    internally.
  • Both also said that some colleagues now fear that the
    company could arbitrarily retaliate against Googlers for something
    as simple as improper access to a document or potentially,
    reporting an ethically questionable project.
  • Below is Kent Walker’s full email to
    employees. 
  • Visit
    Business Insider’s homepage for more stories
    .

Google
executives are clamping down on what information can and cannot be
shared among employees, amid a wave of employee activism that has
caused the tech giant to sideline numerous projects, including some
that had the potential to be highly lucrative. 

According to an internal email sent to employees last week and
obtained by Business Insider, Google’s Chief Legal Officer Kent
Walker re-enforced the company’s restrictions for sharing
“need-to-know” information with colleagues and re-iterated that the
consequences for misclassifying and mishandling such information
could result in termination. 

“It’s a violation of our policies to improperly access, copy, or
share confidential or need-to-know information, whether or not it
is explicitly marked,” Walker wrote in the email. “Doing so could
subject you to disciplinary action. We have fired people who
violated our data policies.” 

According to Walker, the “need-to-know” definition extends to
any information that is specific to an individual’s or team’s job,
like notes and emails from a brainstorming session, project
evaluations, and details of an organization’s financial or
strategic plan. That would suggest that sharing — or even having
access to — any information outside of an employee’s immediate
role could be a fire able offense.  News of Walker’s email was

first reported by BuzzFeed on Tuesday. 

Fears of retaliation 

Two current employees who spoke to Business Insider said that
some now feared that the company could arbitrarily retaliate
against Googlers for something as simple as improper access to a
document or potentially, reporting an ethically questionable
project. Fears over retaliation are especially high at the tech
giant as of late, after two women who helped spearhead the November
Walkouts — Meredith Whittaker and Claire Stapleton —
said the company tried to demote and dramatically change their
roles
in response to their organizing efforts. 

Although Walker characterized his email as a reminder of
Google’s “longstanding data security policies,” both employees
Business Insider spoke with said there appeared to be updates to
the policy which tightened the tech giant’s control over
information being spread internally.

Specifically, one employee pointed to the sharing of technical
design documents — which are widely used by engineers to explain
the concepts, motivations, and implementations of features they’ve
created. Given the policy laid out in Walker’s email regarding
“need-to-know” information, the employee said that sharing those
design documents — which can be critical to navigating Google’s
massive code base — could now be considered off limits. 

A Google spokesperson told Business Insider that the overall
intent of policies are not meant to limit conversation amongst
employees, and internal docs like post mortems and design docs
would still shareable across teams.

The employee said the limitations laid out in the email far
exceeded how information is shared in actuality at the tech giant
today, where a culture of openness and transparency has long been
its mantra. New hires as recent as 2014, for example, were
encouraged in orientation trainings to look up the company’s holy
grail — its Search algorithm source code — which is almost
entirely accessible to anyone capable of finding it.

However, after Walker’s email, employees are left to question
whether a document they’ve shared in the past or one that has been
shared with them, could now get them in trouble. 

On Tuesday, the company sent a follow-up note to clarify its
policy, though both employees we spoke to both said it did not
provide reassurance regarding fears of retaliation. 

Preventing the next ‘Dragonfly’

The memo comes at a time when Google’s expanding technological
capabilities and business ambitions have pushed it into markets
long considered off-limits or controversial within the company. The
backlash Google faced when details of some projects became public
has rocked the company.

Already over the past year, Google
decided not to renew its artificial intelligence contract
with
the Pentagon — known as Project Maven —after thousands of
employees signed a petition (and dozens quit) in protest. Similar
pressure was applied when
employees discovered
the company was working on a censored
search engine for China — known as “Dragonfly.” 

Although employee petitions slowed down Google’s ambitions for
its censored search, the secretive nature of the project left a
chilling effect on employees and brought into question the level of
transparency that would be offered by executives moving forward,
according to the employee who spoke to Business Insider. 

“They [leadership] were determined to prevent leaks about
Dragonfly from spreading through the company,” a source
told The Intercept
back in November. “Their biggest fear was
that internal opposition would slow our operations.”

Below is the email from Google’s’ SVP for Global Affairs
and Chief Legal Officer, Kent Walker. (Note: This email was
dictated over the phone and transcribed by Business Insider, so
formatting may differ from the original message
sent.) 

Subject: An important reminder on data classification

Many of the tools we use every day are designed to foster a
collaborative, problem solving culture. People who join Google are
often surprised by the access they have to tools like Buganizer and
to information resources like other teams post-mortems. As you saw
at I/O, we use information to build some incredibly helpful tools,
sharing knowledge to build better and smarter without reinventing
the wheel.

And more than ever, we need to take care of good information we
hold. User data has long been subject to very tight security
restrictions. Across our PAs and business teams we increasingly
partner with a growing range of companies in various industries,
many of which are highly regulated. The data we work with —
content like customer health care records, payment information,
product plans, device specs, or financial projections or our own
internal material — is often governed by strict contractual
requirements and national laws. Failing to comply with our
obligations exposes Google and each of us to signification
risk.

In addition to controls and information access and processing,
we have longstanding data security policies that classify the types
of information we work with and that make clear when its
appropriate to access and share and when it is not. So I wanted to
take moment to remind everyone of those policies which apply to
Google’s internal information as well as to information relating to
our work with partners.

As a reminder, our data security policy established three
categories of information.

“Public” covers any information that Google has explicitly and
intentionally made available to the public, like Keyword blog
posts.

“Confidential” covers any non-public business or company
financial information that is appropriate to share broadly with
other Googlers. Think daily insider emails, product dog foods, or
physical site information about our offices published on Moma, or
this email…

“Need-to-know” covers sensitive information that should not be
shared beyond certain people, typically the individuals or teams
working directly on a specific project who are authorized to have
the information to do their jobs. Examples of need-to-know
information could include notes or emails from a product teams’
brainstorming, candid project evaluations, details of an
organization’s budget or strategic plan.

Some things to bear in mind and some steps you can take

It’s a violation of our policies to improperly access, copy, or
share confidential or need-to-know information, whether or not it
is explicitly marked. Doing so could subject you to disciplinary
action. We have fired people who violated our data policies.

If you see information marked or shared inappropriately, please
flag it to the data owner or report misdirected data. If you’re not
sure whether something is confidential or need-to-know, ask the
owner. If you’re not sure who has access to your data or whether it
had been inadvertently shared too widely in the past, use this
handy drive visibility tool to quickly scan your drive account. It
will show you the levels of access on each of your files. E.g.
Which ones are available to any Googler with the link and let you
change any incorrect settings.

If you’re creating emails or other documents containing Google
confidential or need-to-know information, make sure to label them
appropriately to minimize the risk of unintended exposures. We’ll
be rolling out additional training as we extend communications on
our policies throughout the year. There are also some helpful links
at the bottom of this email.

Thanks for re-familiarizing yourself with these policies,
checking the status of your files, and for taking this as seriously
as we do.

Kent

Do you work at Google? Got a tip? Contact this
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Google is threatening to fire employees in a crackdown on leaks about 'need to know' projects (GOOG, GOOGL)