Some Google employees have accused the company’s leadership of developing a browser-based file extension for all of Google’s in-house computers that could flag-up signs of workers trying to organise meetings and protests.
The story came to light in a memo written by a Google employee that is reported to have been seen and verified by 3 other anonymous Google employees and Bloomberg News. In the memo it was alleged that a team within the company had developed a surveillance tool, disguised as a calendar, that could be added to the custom Chrome browser used on Google’s computers.
The employee’s memo alleged that the browser extension would be able to report any staff who booked a calendar event which involved the need for more than 10 rooms, or scheduled an event with more than 100 people, and the alleged reason for flagging up these details was to warn the company’s leadership about any attempt to organise workers for the purposes of industrial action e.g. meetings and protests related to labour rights.
Reported employee memos have suggested that work on the tool started in September and that Google’s privacy team approved the tool’s release but also expressed some concerns about the culture at Google.
According to Google, however, the tool was developed over several months and was subject to Google’s standard privacy, security and legal reviews.
Rollout In October
According to reports of a memo posted on an internal staff message board, the surveillance tool is due to be rolled out this month (October), and there is a report of two Google workers in California saying that the tool has already been added to their browsers.
‘Trouble at Mill’
There has been speculation by some commentators that the tool may have been developed in response to recent outbreaks of organised activity by workers concerned about the company’s attitude to their rights, the ethics of some of the company’s projects, and how Google may have handled some complaints. For example, some workers in the company’s Zurich office held an event about workers’ rights and unionisation, and some Google employees have protested about products such as the ‘Project Dragonfly’ search engine that could allow Google to re-enter the Chinese market by censoring certain terms. Human rights groups had also been vocal in criticising this idea saying that it appeared to support state censorship.
What Does This Mean For Your Business?
For Google employees, many of whom are used to working in an environment of relative freedom where creativity and collaboration are encouraged, an apparent cultural shift (if indeed that is what is happening) towards a more authoritarian and less trusting approach where ethics could come lower down the list of priorities in the search for profits would be likely to be a shock, and could possibly damage the relationship and the trust between management and workers. It is unlikely that workers anywhere would respond positively to being subjected to a kind of covert surveillance and internal censorship, particularly if they believed that it was being carried out to curtail certain aspects of their labour rights. The resulting bad publicity could also damage a company’s brand and therefore, the company’s competitiveness and customer perceptions of the company.
It should be said, however, that the reports of the development of the browser tool in Google rest upon the alleged details of memos, and it is unclear to date how accurate the reports are.