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Zuckerberg secret police hunt leakers

Issued: 2018-03-16

Working for a tech company may sound like all fun and ping-pong, but behind the facade is a ruthless code of secrecy – and retribution for those who break it

Olivia Solon in San Francisco

Fri 16 Mar 2018 05.00 EDT Last modified on Fri 16 Mar 2018 15.53 EDT

One day last year, John Evans (not his real name) received a message from his manager at Facebook telling him he was in line for a promotion. When they met the following day, she led him down a hallway praising his performance. However, when she opened the door to a meeting room, he came face to face with members of Facebook’s secretive “rat-catching” team, led by the company’s head of investigations, Sonya Ahuja.

The interrogation was a technicality; they already knew he was guilty of leaking some innocuous information to the press. They had records of a screenshot he’d taken, links he had clicked or hovered over, and they strongly indicated they had accessed chats between him and the journalist, dating back to before he joined the company.

“It’s horrifying how much they know,” he told the Guardian, on the condition of anonymity. “You go into Facebook and it has this warm, fuzzy feeling of ‘we’re changing the world’ and ‘we care about things’. But you get on their bad side and all of a sudden you are face to face with [Facebook CEO] Mark Zuckerberg’s secret police.”

The public image of Silicon Valley’s tech giants is all colourful bicycles, ping-pong tables, beanbags and free food, but behind the cartoonish facade is a ruthless code of secrecy. They rely on a combination of Kool-Aid, digital and physical surveillance, legal threats and restricted stock units to prevent and detect intellectual property theft and other criminal activity. However, those same tools are also used to catch employees and contractors who talk publicly, even if it’s about their working conditions, misconduct or cultural challenges within the company.

While Apple’s culture of secrecy, which includes making employees sign project-specific NDAs and covering unlaunched products with black cloths, has been widely reported, companies such as Google and Facebook have long put the emphasis on internal transparency.

Zuckerberg hosts weekly meetings where he shares details of unreleased new products and strategies in front of thousands of employees. Even junior staff members and contractors can see what other teams are working on by looking at one of many of the groups on the company’s internal version of Facebook.

“When you first get to Facebook you are shocked at the level of transparency. You are trusted with a lot of stuff you don’t need access to,” said Evans, adding that during his induction he was warned not to look at ex-partners’ Facebook accounts.

“The counterbalance to giving you this huge trusting environment is if anyone steps out of line, they’ll squash you like a bug.”

During one of Zuckerberg’s weekly meetings in 2015, after word of its new messaging assistant spread, the usually affable CEO warned employees: “We’re going to find the leaker, and we’re going to fire them.” A week later came the public shaming: Zuck revealed the culprit had been caught and fired. People at the meeting applauded.

“Companies routinely use business records in workplace investigations, and we are no exception,” said a Facebook spokeswoman, Bertie Thomson.

It’s a similar story at Google. Staff use an internal version of Google Plus and thousands of mailing lists to discuss everything from homeownership to items for sale, as well as social issues like neoconservatism and diversity. With the exception of James Damore’s explosive memo about gender and tech, most of it doesn’t leak.

By and large, staff buy into the corporate mission in a happy-clappy campus which helps foster a tribal mentality that discourages treachery. Employees are also rewarded with annual allocations of restricted stock that can buy silence for years after leaving.

“You would never do something that screws up the company’s chance of success because you are directly affected by it,” said a former Googler Justin Maxwell, who noted the pressure to behave in a “Googley” way.

The search engine’s former head of investigations, Brian Katz, highlighted this in 2016 in a company-wide email titled: “Internal only. Really.”

“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 [sic] us a community,” he wrote.

This email came to light after another former employee sued Google for its overzealous approach to preventing leaks using overly broad confidentiality agreements and getting employees to spy on and report each other. The legal complaint alleges that Google’s policies violate labour laws that allow employees to discuss workplace conditions, wages and potential legal violations inside the company. Both parties are scheduled to enter mediation later this year.

James Damore, the software engineer who was fired from Google after writing a controversial memo questioning diversity programmes, suspects he was being monitored by the company during his final days.

He also described “weird things” happening to his work phone and laptop after the memo went viral. “All the internal apps updated at the same time, which had never happened before. I had to re-sign in to my Google account on both devices and my Google Drive – where the document was – stopped working.”

Damore said that much of the spying capabilities were outlined in his contract and that it was mostly “necessary” for a company that gives “everyone access to secret things”.

After he was fired, Damore stopped using his personal Gmail account in favour of Yahoo email out of fear that Google might be spying on him. “My lawyer doesn’t think they are above doing that,” he said.

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