Some Google employees defect, then rebel

Mark Milian

Many computer engineers consider a job offer from Google as the golden ticket.

Outdoor volleyball courts, free gourmet food, on-site haircuts, massages and laundry are among the perks Google has offered its employees at its main campus in Mountain View, California.

But some of the people who do leave are challenging the company in the best way an engineer knows how: by developing programs that could detract from Google’s core business.

Brian Kennish worked at Google for seven years, managing teams of engineers on a variety of products such as the Chrome browser and the moribund Google Wave.

Near the end of his stint at Google, Kennish developed a browser extension for Chrome called Facebook Disconnect.

The software blocks websites that have Facebook widgets installed from automatically sending information about the user back to the social networking company. Facebook Disconnect has 75,000 users, Kennish said.

“No one at Google asked me to do it,” Kennish told CNN this week.

What sparked Kennish’s project, he said, was reading the recent scrutiny of online data-collection tactics chronicled by news organizations. The Wall Street Journal has been running a series called “What They Know,” and CNN had its own last week called “End of Privacy.”

While Facebook and the applications that run on its platform can be considered personal-data hoarders, Kennish eventually realized his then-employer was, itself, among the biggest collectors.

To name a few practices, Google can track search queries over time, target ads to its Gmail users based on the contents of e-mails, and use a person’s location data to determine which shops’ ads it will show. Google, like many Web advertising companies, uses small files called cookies to track internet surfing habits in order to better target ads.

“I never worked directly with user data,” Kennish said of his time at Google. “I didn’t have a good sense of what was being collected. Privacy wasn’t a passion of mine or something that I knew a lot about until basically two months ago, when I started reading about this stuff.”

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