squash you like a bug': how Silicon Valley attacks those that
for a tech company may sound like all fun and ping-pong, but
behind the facade is a ruthless code of secrecy – and deadly
retribution for those who break the secrecy or interfere with
the Silicon Valley Cartel
day last year, John Evans (not his real name) received a message from
his manager atFacebooktelling
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.
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.
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.”
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.
weekly meetingswhere 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.
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.
counterbalance to giving you this huge trusting environment is if
anyone steps out of line, they’ll squash you like a bug.”
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.
routinely use business records in workplace investigations, and we are
no exception,” said a Facebook spokeswoman, Bertie Thomson.
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 theexception
of James Damore’s explosive memoabout gender
and tech, most of it doesn’t leak.
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.
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
search engine’s former head of investigations, Brian Katz, highlighted
this in 2016 in a company-wide email titled: “Internal only. Really.”
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.
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 legalcomplaintalleges
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.
Damore, the software engineer who was fired fromGoogleafter
writing a controversial memo questioning diversity programmes,
suspects he was being monitored by the company during his final days.
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.”
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”.
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.
a Google spokeswoman said the company never reads personal email
accounts and denied spying on Damore’s devices.
wouldn’t expect them to admit to it,” Damore said.
Damore’s memo, Google has become much leakier, particularly aroundinternal
discussionsof racial and gender diversity.
a cry for help internally,” said another former Googler, who now runs
said people at Google had for years put up with covert sexism,
internal biases or, in his case, a manager with anger management
problems. “No one would do anything until one day a VP saw the guy
yelling at me in the hallway.
have been dealing with this stuff for years and are finally thinking
‘if Google isn’t going to do something about it, we’re going to leak
low-paid contractors who do the grunt work for big tech companies, the
incentive to keep silent is more stick than carrot. What they lack in
stock options and a sense of corporate tribalism, they make up for in
fear of losing their jobs.
European Facebook content moderator signed a contract, seen by the
Guardian, which granted the company the right to monitor and record
his social media activities, including his personal Facebook account,
as well as emails, phone calls and internet use. He also agreed to
random personal searches of his belongings including bags, briefcases
and car while on company premises. Refusal to allow such searches
would be treated as gross misconduct.
reportinginto working conditions of community
operations analysts at Facebook’s European headquarters in Dublin, the
company clamped down further, he said.
would be questioned if they took photographs in the office or printed
emails or documents. “On more than one occasion someone would print
something and you’d find management going through the log to see what
they had printed,” said one former worker.
teams would leave “mouse traps” – USB keys containing data that were
left around the office to test staff loyalty. “If you find a USB or
something you’d have to give it in straight away. If you plugged it
into a computer it would throw up a flare and you’d be instantly
escorted out of the building.”
was paranoid. When we texted each other we’d use code if we needed to
talk about work and meet up in person to talk about it in private,” he
employees switch their phones off or hide them out of fear that their
location is being tracked. One currentFacebook
employee who recently spoke to Wiredasked the
reporter to turn off his phone so the company would have a harder time
tracking if it had been near the phones of anyone from Facebook.
security researchers confirmed that this would be technically simple
for Facebook to do if both people had the Facebook app on their phone
and location services switched on. Even if location services aren’t
switched on, Facebook can infer someone’s location from wifi access
do not use cellphones to track employee locations, nor do we track
locations of people who do not work at Facebook, including reporters,”
will also hire external agencies to surveil their staff. One such
firm, Pinkerton, counts Google and Facebook among its clients.
other services, Pinkerton offers to send investigators to coffee shops
or restaurants near a company’s campus to eavesdrop on employees’
we hear anything about a new product coming, or new business ventures
or something to do with stocks, we’ll feed that information back to
corporate security,” said David Davari, a managing director at the
firm, adding that the focus is usually IP theft or insider trading.
and Google both deny using this service.
LinkedIn searches, the Guardian found several former Pinkerton
investigators to have subsequently been hired by Facebook, Google and
tools are common, widespread, intrusive and legal,” said Al Gidari,
consulting director of privacy at the Stanford Center for Internet and
are required to take steps to detect and deter criminal misconduct, so
it’s not surprising they are using the same tools to make sure
employees are in compliance with their contractual obligations.”
anonymous employee said that they received a message from
their manager saying they would receive a promotion. They said
their manager walked them down a corridor, praising their
work, and then directed them into a meeting room.
the meeting room were several members of Facebook's internal
investigations team, The Guardian reported. The investigators
accused the employee of leaking information to a journalist,
and the employee said they had records of screenshots, links
clicked, and potentially the conversation with a journalist.
horrifying how much they know," the anonymous employee told
The Guardian, "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 Mark Zuckerberg's secret police."
employee went on to say that "the counterbalance to giving you
this huge trusting environment is if anyone steps out of line,
they'll squash you like a bug."
not unusual for technology companies to have internal
investigation teams that try to root out leaks.But
the full feature by The Guardianilluminates how
widespread it is and how it works. Facebook did not
immediately respond to a request for comment.