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Buzzed Gmail outs Googly ties of Obama's deputy CTO

Ex-Googler hoist by Mountain View's own petard

Internet Security Threat Report 2014

It would be hard to imagine a better Google story. If the company's own web services somehow outed the most intimate secrets of CEO Eric Schmidt - a man who says net privacy is only for miscreants - that would surely be the Google story to end all Google stories. But a comeuppance of such epic proportions seems too much to ask. Today's story will do just fine.

Last month, when Mountain View launched its Google Buzz social networking service, US deputy CTO Andrew McLaughlin was among those who belatedly realized that the Tweetbookish Gmail add-on had publicly exposed the people he emails and chats with the most. So says the Washington-obsessed blog, Big Government. And it was kind enough to provide screenshots. You can see them here.

On one level, this is amusing because McLaughlin is officially the country's chief internet brain, the man charged with bringing the so-called Web 2.0 revolution to Barack Obama's federal government. As Big Government points out, McLaughlin works in Obama's Office of Science and Technology Policy, whose mission includes “safeguarding the privacy of every American...[by] holding businesses accountable for violations of personal privacy."

But the story resonates on an entirely different level when you consider that McLaughlin joined the Obama administration after serving as Google's chief lobbyist - its head of global public policy. And according to those screenshots posted by Big Government, Google Buzz outed countless Google employees as among McLaughlin's most contacted contacts. The blog counts 28 Google employees in his contacts list, including several top Google lobbyists and lawyers.

Which is just the sort of thing McLaughlin's (many) critics were concerned about when he was appointed as deputy CTO. As the news broke that McLaughlin had left his Google post for the federal government, public advocates called on Obama to halt the appointment, howling that the new President was backtracking on an executive order intended to lock the "revolving door" between the executive branch and corporate lobbyists.

"Given Mr. McLaughlin’s role over the years at Google, and most recently his position with its political action committee, any post at the White House would violate the intent of your executive order," read a letter from the Center for Digital Democracy and the consumer watchdog known as Consumer Watchdog.

"As Google’s Director of Global Public Policy, Mr. McLaughlin led a team of corporate policy advocates working to influence a wide range of issues in the United States and globally. Simply put, he has been responsible for Google’s worldwide lobbying efforts."

As Fortune examined in an October 2009 feature entitled "Obama & Google (a love story)," the administration's Mountain View ties run deep. Googlers were among the biggest supporters of the Obama campaign, donating roughly $803,000 according to OpenSecrets.org. Only Microsoft and Goldman Sachs employees gave more.

After the election, McLaughlin worked for the Obama transition team full-time, taking leave from Google, while Eric Schmidt was appointed to the President Elect's Transition Economic Advisory Board. Schmidt and other top Googlers then contributed $25,000 apiece to the inauguration, and McLaughlin was one of several ex-Googlers eventually appointed to the administration, including former Google project manager Katie Stanton, who became the White House director of citizen participation. Sonal Shah, former head of global development at Google.org, was put in charge of the White House Office of Social Innovation.

Meanwhile, Eric Schmidt now sits on Obama's Council of Science and Technology Advisers.

Following Big Government's post about McLaughlin's Gmail activity, Consumer Watchdog filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request with the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, seeking emails between the deputy CTO and his former employer. "This shows what was wrong with Google Buzz in the first place, but it has also outed McLaughlin as maintaining ongoing ties with Google," Consumer Watchdog's John Simpson tells The Reg. "It's one thing if you go to a company and get a technology guy who's buried in the company and bring him into government. But McLaughlin was their top global lobbyist, peddling influence for the company around the world."

And of course, there's the added irony that McLaughlin is supposed to be guarding our net privacy. It would seem he was displeased with the Google Buzz privacy setup. But in showing his displeasure, he also seems intent on maintaining private conversations with all those Google employees on his contacts list.

"By default, Buzz adds the people you e-mail most as your ‘followers’, and then lists them on your public Google Profile Page," he wrote in a, well, Google Buzz post, according to Big Government. "In other words, Google exposes the people you e-mail most, by default, to the world. That violates my sense of expectations - I expect the list of people I e-mail most to be kept private. What should I do? I guess I don’t really have an option other than turning off Buzz. Any other ideas?”

Andrew McLaughlin Buzz

McLaughlin then goes to make a "feature request" of the Buzz development team, asking for a way to privately contact his "followers" - i.e., the list of people compiled from his email and chat contacts. "I want to post something to my followers, but I don't want it to appear on my public profile. But when I choose 'Private.' I get a list of contact groups, none of which is 'Followers.' Under 'Private,' there should [be] a choice for 'Followers,' dynamically updated as I add or delete."

Google has since modified the Buzz privacy settings, after complaints from privacy advocates, the press, and apparently Google employees. But this we knew. What we don't know is the details of McLaughlin's ongoing relationship with Google - or to what extent he's committed to "holding the company accountable" for its violation of Americans' personal privacy - including his own.

Thus Consumer Watchdog's FOIA request. This story may get even better. ®

Bootnote

Actually, it does get better. The most amusing aspect of Andrew McLaughlin's most contacted list is that it includes Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales. We can only hope "Jimbo" has no serious influence on American internet policy.

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