Google Buzz Privacy Flaw Snags Another Victim: White House Deputy CTO Andrew McLaughlin

It’s been several weeks now since the disastrous rollout of Google Buzz’s initial social networking platform. It was on February 9ththat Google Buzz unleashed its newest foray into social media to compete with the likes of Facebook and Twitter.

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According to a post on Google’s Official Blog at the time, Buzz was touted as a service that was built “right into Gmail, so you don’t have to peck out an entirely new set of friends from scratch… Buzz brings this network to the surface by automatically setting you up to follow the people you email with and chat with the most.”

And therein lies the problem… Almost immediately, Buzz was lambasted for taking huge liberties with Gmail users’ privacy. By default, the Gmail contacts of each new Buzz user were made publicly available in their Google profiles for the world to see. The Buzz-o-sphere even included “follow” links, which meant that any prying snoop could harvest the contact lists of other Buzz users as well.

Well, now we’ve learned that one of those who apparently got swept up in the Buzz privacy imbroglio was none other than Andrew McLaughlin, the controversial Deputy Chief Technology Officer in the Obama White House who was formerly Google’s top lobbyist.

McLaughlin works in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) and is in charge of all Internet policy for the Administration. The two key components of OSTP’s mission are the creation of an “Open and Transparent Democracy”, and ironically, “Safeguarding the Privacy of Every American” by … “holding businesses accountable for violations of personal privacy.” (More on this in a moment.)

McLaughlin’s Buzz profile (which he quickly made private after his contacts were exposed) is enlightening to say the least. It includes a treasure trove of movers and shakers in high-tech, Internet public policy, and venture capital circles.

But it includes much, much more. At least 28 of the folks Google Buzz pulled from McLaughlin’s Gmail contact list are employed by…Google! And, as you can see from the screenshots below (captured before he made his contact lists private) McLaughlin’s Gmail appears to include a “who’s who” of Google senior lobbyists and lawyers from across the globe:

McLaughlin Contacts

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This is significant because when McLaughlin was named deputy chief technology officer in June of 2009, his appointment raised eyebrows. Fortune Magazine’s article Obama & Google (a love story) pointed out that in his previous role, McLaughlin championed Google’s policy goals. The article pointed out that in his new position as Deputy CTO, “he’s now in a position to shape policy that affects Google’s rivals.”

So, is he now shaping such policy by conferring outside of official White House email channels with the scads of Google lobbyists in his Gmail list? Who’s to say. After all, it’s not necessarily unreasonable for McLaughlin to be communicating with his former friends and colleagues at Google. Heck, it’s even possible that these are old Gmail contacts that he’s no longer in touch with, now that he’s a (ahem) “G-man” whose salary is paid by the taxpayers.

But there are some interesting clues that this isn’t the case. Check out this series of posts by McLaughlin directly to the Google Buzz development team after he signed up for the service inquiring about how he can communicate privately with his Gmail contacts on Buzz:

McLaughlin Question

Then there’s this… All those “random people” (pesky taxpayers) who McLaughlin doesn’t know and doesn’t want reading his private Buzz items.

McLaughlin 1


Followed by another request for instructions to post private messages to his Google Buzz followers.

McLaughlin Buzz 2

Intriguingly, the entire dialogue suggests that McLaughlin’s Buzz contact list (his Gmail contacts filled with Google lobbyists) are folks that he would like to communicate with currently – albeit privately. McLaughlin asks the Buzz development team repeatedly how he can make such postings private so he doesn’t have to share them in his public profile.

And remember that whole bit about the job of the Deputy Chief Technology Officer being responsible for “holding businesses accountable for violations of personal privacy”. Google Buzz’s privacy fiasco would surely seem to hit that sweet spot in McLaughlin’s job description. So, how did McLaughlin hold his former employer’s feet to the fire? Again, his Google Buzz postings provide an answer:

McLaughlin Buzz 3

McLaughlin says that Buzz’s privacy flaws “violate my sense of expectations.” “What should I do” he asks. Turn off Buzz? “Any other ideas?” Whoa! That’s some serious “holding businesses accountable” talk there. With a former Googler holding businesses accountable for privacy violations, Eric Schmidt must be quaking in his boots!

The exceptionally close relationship between Google and the Obama Administration is no secret. But it does raise questions when Google’s former top lobbyist, now serving in the executive office of the president, is using his former employer’s private email and social networking tools (Gmail and Buzz) to communicate privately with bunches of Google lobbyists and lawyers. What are they communicating privately about? Perhaps “shaping policy that affects Google’s rivals”?

It raises additional questions when a government employee (McLaughlin) who is specifically charged with “holding businesses accountable for violations of personal privacy” is using the very tool that violated that privacy to communicate privately with the lobbyists of the company that developed the tool in the first place.

This may all be much ado about nothing of course, and perhaps McLaughlin deserves the benefit of the doubt. But were it another administration’s close relationship with a corporate supporter – GWBII and Halliburton come to mind – you can bet that there would be hell to pay.

Much more to come on this… Stay tuned.


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