Staff at Google are wary that the company may be building “an internal surveillance tool” with the purpose of crushing employee dissent, Bloomberg reported on Wednesday.
Bloomberg cited an internal memo from a Google staffer that the extension, which runs on a workplace version of Google Chrome that documents activity at the company, would automatically flag any employee who creates a calendar event “with more than 10 rooms or 100 participants.” The memo argued that this functionality is an “attempt of leadership to immediately learn about any workers organisation attempts”; three Google employees also anonymously talked to Bloomberg about the matter. Engineers working on the extension also characterised its purpose as “policy enforcement,” while other staff were blocked from viewing design documents pertaining to the project.
For its part, Google has portrayed the matter as much ado about basic spam prevention, telling Bloomberg in a statement that “These claims about the operation and purpose of this extension are categorically false. This is a pop-up reminder that asks people to be mindful before auto-adding a meeting to the calendars of large numbers of employees.”
Google staff have raised concerns around the company’s Project Maven contract to build drone AI for the Pentagon, which was later discontinued, and spoken out against its rumoured plans to build a censored search engine in China. They’ve also protested the company’s handling of senior executives accused of sexual harassment and assault, launching a high-profile walkout last year. Organisers involved in the walkout effort later claimed they were retaliated against, which Google denied. Google contractors in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, have unionised, while staff in Switzerland reportedly defied management to discuss doing the same.
This internal tension over the past few years also coincided with a string of conservative Google employees who claimed that liberals company discriminated against their viewpoints. That included ex-engineers James Damore and Kevin Cernekee, who both tried to become celebrities of sorts on the right-wing media circuit. While they found only limited success in their attempts to do so, those claims added fuel to unfounded claims by Republican politicians that Google systematically suppresses conservative speech.
All these factors seem to have become a major headache for Google, known for its freewheeling “open communication culture” and labyrinth of employee messaging boards. In August, the company issued new community guidelines to staff that seemed to intended to rein in the rank-and-file from discussing politics at work or challenging Google management’s decisions. Those directives included “Avoid conversations that are disruptive to the workplace or otherwise violate Google’s workplace policies” and “Take care not to make false or misleading statements about Google’s products or business that could undermine trust in our products and the work that we do.” Google also said it was hiring new moderators and building a tool to flag problematic internal posts, though it’s not clear if that is the Chrome extension being installed now.
According to Bloomberg, the memo about the supposed internal monitoring tool suggested that it is intended to help Google enforce those guidelines. Bloomberg reported that the tool is scheduled for rollout by late October, though two staffers said it was already installed on their work computers. Another source told Bloomberg that the tool is now the most requested topic for Google’s weekly all-staff meetings. [Bloomberg]
Featured image: Noah Berger (AP)