Google leak-hunting team put under unwelcome spotlight

Lawsuit reveals ominous warnings from former government special agent

"If you're considering sharing confidential information to a reporter – or to anyone externally – for the love of all that's Googley, please reconsider! Not only could it cost you your job, but it also betrays the values that makes us a community."

So reads an ominous email titled "INTERNAL ONLY. REALLY" sent from the head of investigations at Google, Brian Katz.

Katz was responding to a leak of internal jokes about Nest CEO Tony Fadell as well as a transcript of a talk he gave to an "open meeting" of Google employees. The email notes: "We identified the people who leaked the TGIF transcript and memes. Because of their intentional disregard of confidentiality, they've been fired."

Except one of the people Katz fired claims he didn't leak anything. And so late last year he sued Google for unjustly terminating his contract and pointed the finger at a corporate culture of secrecy and fear.

Internally, employees are encouraged to monitor their colleagues and report anything they think is suspicious to the internal investigative team that Katz heads up, the anonymous employee claims. That amounts to an internal "spying program," the lawsuit claims, and is illegal. The same former employee also took his case to the National Labor Relations Board.

In the latest filing [PDF] in the legal case, "John Doe" includes Katz's email as an exhibit [PDF] and an example of Google's "illegal policies," alongside redacted copies of confidentiality agreements that Google employees are required to sign and job offer letters that note signing a confidentiality agreement is compulsory.

The filing is an effort to get the court to order Google to release more documents about its internal policies and most likely documents surrounding the investigation and firing of employees over the Fadell meme leaks.

Brick

Fadell had been criticized for failing to come up with any new products at Nest, and for introducing a difficult work culture that went against the Google grain. But his decision to end support for Revolv, a popular IoT gateway, effectively bricked it and brought down a storm of criticism on the company.

On Google's internal noticeboard amusing memes were posted mocking Fadell. Then, when he gave a subsequent talk at Google headquarters, the transcript of the meeting was leaked to the press.

Google embarked on a "witch hunt," according to the employee – the result of which saw him fired. He filed his case with the National Labor Relations Board and just two weeks later Fadell announced he was "quitting" as Nest CEO.

In that case, most of the claims against Google, including unlawful surveillance, were dismissed [PDF] in March due to the fact that he was not recognized as a formal "employee" thanks to portions of California's employment laws. He has appealed the decision.

Meanwhile, Brian Katz – a former State department special agent who also oversees executive protection at Google – notes in his letter that: "We've all worked hard to create an environment where we can share information openly. Our culture relies on our ability to trust each other – we share a lot of confidential information, but we also commit to keeping it inside the company. We don't want that to change."

You can be certain that Google will also want to keep the details of its investigations "inside the company," so expect a robust response from the company to its former employee's efforts to open things up. ®

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