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Google Exec's Internal Email On Its Data Leak Policy Has Rattled Employees

An all-staff email sent Thursday reminded Google employees that accessing internal information without permission could get them fired.

Last updated on May 14, 2019, at 3:20 p.m. ET

Posted on May 14, 2019, at 3:09 p.m. ET

Alex Wong / Getty Images

Kent Walker, senior vice president and general counsel for Google

With employees organizing sit-ins over retaliation and continuing to agitate for change, Google is locking down internal communications. Google’s top legal executive, Kent Walker, sent an all-staff email Thursday informing employees that accessing documents classified as “need to know” without permission could result in termination, sources inside the company tell BuzzFeed News.

After BuzzFeed News contacted Google about the email, Walker sent an update Tuesday in the company’s daily newsletter, clarifying that employees were typically only terminated when intentional violations resulted in data leaks, risks to user privacy, or harm to coworkers.

The Thursday email titled “An important reminder on data classifications” referenced changes to Google’s data security policy that were updated in October. Although the policy has been in place since 2007, and updates are visible internally, employees weren’t notified by email at the time. The timing of the email announcement rattled employees who’ve been involved with organizing within the company’s ranks and who told BuzzFeed News they saw it as a blow to internal accountability mechanisms.

These employees said the “need to know” language in the data security policy leaves which particular documents are considered “need to know” up to Google’s interpretation; “need to know” documents aren’t necessarily labeled as such, and the punishment for accessing such documents without permission can vary but include termination.

In the past, Google has had a reputation for openness, allowing employees wide access to documents and source code regardless of their job assignment. Now, following leaks about products in China and partnerships with the US military, as well as employee efforts to change the company’s policies on forced arbitration, workplace sexual misconduct, and benefits for contract workers, Google is tightening the reins.

The email “could very easily be read as an attempt to scare anyone who might be a whistleblower or organizer,” said one employee who requested anonymity when discussing the email out of fear of termination. “I think it’s clear that organizing around Maven and the walkout would have been much more difficult if these policies had been in place.”

The employee declined to provide BuzzFeed News with a copy of the letter, citing a warning in the email itself that the document is considered confidential information.

The warnings about data security follow other signs that Google is scrambling to control leaks; the company’s weekly all-staff meeting, known as TGIF, is no longer being recorded and made available to staff in perpetuity, and the executives who attend are no longer taking live questions from employees at the meeting, as BuzzFeed News previously reported.

In addition, in recent weeks Google employees who were publicly involved in the November walkout over the mishandling of workplace sexual misconduct have gone public with claims that Google retaliated against them. Two of the employees who organized the walkout have since been demoted, according to the New York Times.

A Google spokesperson declined to comment on the changes to the data security policy, and referred BuzzFeed News to its earlier statement on retaliation: “We prohibit retaliation in the workplace and publicly share our very clear policy. To make sure that no complaint raised goes unheard at Google, we give employees multiple channels to report concerns, including anonymously, and investigate all allegations of retaliation.”

Members of an internal Google email list dedicated to discussion about workplace organizing are concerned about their employer’s attempt to dissuade dissenters and crack down on leaks.

“It’s such a clear retreat from the culture of internal openness and transparency which we used to be proud of,” said the anonymous employee. “It made me more convinced than ever that organizing ourselves as workers is essential, both for our own protection and to make Google the kind of company that we want to work for.”

A BuzzFeed News investigation, in partnership with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, based on thousands of documents the government didn't want you to see.