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Fallen from Google

Some systems administrator (or sysadmin) at Google's Seattle shop met some kids one day. He started to behave like them, like Ha, ha! I know something you don't know! In a bout of adolescent immaturity, the sysadmin accessed user accounts to spy on call logs, chat transcripts, contact lists … even unblocked himself from a teen's buddy list. I do not know whether that creeped out the kids. But it surely creeped out their parents, who complained to Google. Google, in turn, fired the sysadmin.

This was reported on Slashdot and on Techdirt. I ventured a comment on the latter.

It probably would have been better if the engineer had been demoted to a position that would keep him out of the accounts and GMail/Chat databases, yet let him keep doing useful work for Google. Just firing him, from what to some is Paradise to a traditional hacker, would leave him with little choice but to engage in crackery to make a living.

As the only response to that comment was an F/S/P, I should explain myself more clearly.

Google has the most benign working environment of any American corporation if you are a programmer or a systems administrator. It is truly a paradise when it is compared to the low pay, long hours and crap work ethos that is the standard information technology environment in American companies.

That there was a very strict and well communicated policies that prohibit what the employee did with the penalty for violation being termination never crossed the mind of that foolish sysadmin, who likely had signed off, unread, on such policies when presented as a thick document full of legalese. That is what most people would do, thinking that nothing would come of it.

The fool probably got so used to working in the Garden of Google, that it never occured to him that it is possible for him to be kicked out, with the gates of the garden guarded by a flaming sword in the hand of some middle-aged bourgeoise mother in high dudgeon to ensure that he never return.

I do not condone the folly of a guy who has obviously never grown out of adolescence. (Why else would he want to hang out with teenagers?) And I agree that it is well within Google's rights to dismiss the fool. But would it have been too much trouble to demote the fool to a lesser position, where Google could still use his skills but where he cannot do any more damage?

Or maybe any attempt to keep the fool on would have been impolitic. Politicians, from sheriffs and other low-grade timeservers to over-ambitious attorneys-general, have been milking the immorality of the Internet for all the political points they can score, blaming major network services, like Google and Facebook and Craigslist, for all the evils of that general public that has befouled the Internet from where they first flooded it in the mid-1990's. Now that Google is a favorite whipping post for a certain grade of apeling, Google has had to behave in such a way to keep the apeling horde at bay.

As for the fool himself, unless he decides on a totally different career (janitor? letter carrier? newspaper mogul?), or unless Google decides to hire a private detection service to keep an eye on him, the dismissal of that fool is going to cause the rest of us a great deal of grief. A sysadmin, who could do those things that the fool did as part of his job, can also use those skills to crack with ease and without detection any system connected on the Internet … including yours. :) And, in order to feed and clothe himself, he may well have to.

Maintaining databases full of sensitive and private information is one of the most hazardous duties in the office of system administrator. It is a danger because, no matter how well you maintain and secure the database, someone — anyone, from a script kiddie, to an industrial spy, to an agent of a foreign government or even of ours — will crack the database and help themselves to its bounty. And then, no matter what you did to protect the database, and yourself, you will still get the blame, lose your job, and even go to prison.

It is likely that Google will suffer more than just a hit to its reputation among the apelings. Google will doubtless stiffen the requirements for the Site Reliability Engineer office from which it expelled the fool, in order to make (or try to make) the apelings happy. And in doing so, Google's task of finding sysadmins to do the fool's job, even among its own employees, will be all the more difficult. Stiffened requirements mean fewer qualified sysadmins for the job. And among qualified sysadmins, even fewer will want the job, no matter how well it pays, because within it one wrong twitch will kill their careers. You have to be a fool to want a job like that — which, I suppose, was why the sysadmin Google fired was one.

Written by Andy West on 15 September 2010.