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Former Google Engineer On Her Firing

Dec 21, 2019
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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Kathryn Spiers worked as an internal security engineer at Google for two years. Part of her job was to write browser notifications that notify co-workers of employee guidelines and company policies, like not uploading proprietary documents while they surf the web.

But when she posted a message about employees' rights in the workplace, one she says that Google itself had posted earlier, Kathryn Spiers was fired. She is the fifth employee terminated by Google in recent weeks in a year of employee activism there that's seen hundreds of Google workers protest controversial business contracts as well as claims of sexual harassment and workplace retaliation.

Kathryn Spiers joins us from San Francisco. Thanks so much for being with us.

KATHRYN SPIERS: Yeah, thank you so much for having me.

SIMON: The message you passed on, as I understand it, read, quote, "Googlers have the right to participate in protected concerted activities." Why did you decide to post that message?

SPIERS: So I posted that message following news of Google hiring the IRI union busting firm, as well as four of my co-workers being fired for organizing. I thought that now was a good time to remind some of my colleagues about their rights.

SIMON: And you felt it was important to post this message because?

SPIERS: Because I think that actions that Google are taking are making it less transparent as a company, and I think that this meaningfully impacts the security of Google. A less transparent Google is a less trustworthy Google. And with access to billions of people's sensitive data, the world really needs a trustworthy Google.

SIMON: In a way, I gather this is what Google was inferring when they issued a public statement. Obviously, they dispute your version of events and say the content you passed along is irrelevant; the message violated the privileged access that you had. How do you respond to that?

SPIERS: I would respond by saying that I went through the normal review process that I went through for all other changes during my time at Google, that changes like this are routine, that my team lead said that what I did was entirely within standard operating procedure.

SIMON: Did the team leader know what the message was or just approved the process?

SPIERS: The team leader didn't approve the process. What the team lead did was, after the fact, he has posted publicly in my defense that I got all approvals necessary.

SIMON: You believe that you were let go because this had to do with organizing activity?

SPIERS: Oh, absolutely.

SIMON: Did you feel at home there?

SPIERS: Personally, I loved working at Google for the most part. I think that they treat their queer employees really well, and I think a lot of the queer employees would agree with me. Most of the concerns that I've heard from queer employees focus on their treatment of others.

SIMON: And you knew what Google did to make money, right?

SPIERS: Yes. I came to terms with the fact that I was going to work with an ad company, and I'm still mostly fine with that. I think it's very important to draw the distinction between the company only caring about money and Googlers only caring about money. I don't believe that Googlers only care about money. I believe there are a ton of Googlers who are still concerned with Google's mission and are either going to be scared into not speaking up or scared into leaving by Google's actions.

SIMON: And other reservations that you have about Google's activities?

SPIERS: So I personally felt deeply uncomfortable with what was called Project Dragonfly, which was going to be a censored search engine in China. That alone would have made me uncomfortable. The thing that really pushed it over the edge was executives at Google bypassing the standard privacy review process to get this launched.

SIMON: So you're looking for another job?

SPIERS: Yes, I'm looking for another job. And I'm still trying to figure out exactly what I'm going to be comfortable with now. One of the outcomes of this for me was watching how security tools can be used to harm organizers. And I am a lot more cautious and worried about how my work in tooling can be used to violate the rights of my co-workers.

SIMON: Kathryn Spiers - till recently worked at Google - thanks so much for being with us.

SPIERS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.