Did TechCrunch’s Leaked Image Expose Their Google Informant?

by Chris Silver Smith

I was lured into reading a TechCrunch story tonight which purports to expose a new social media utility called Google +1, and I happened to see that they had blurred out the Google username in the upper right corner, likely intending to obscure the identity of their informant who leaked the screengrab image to them.

When glancing at the leaked image fully expanded, it appeared to me that the blurring of the name was somewhat insufficient, and the letters appeared tantalizingly near to being recognizable. I couldn’t help but wonder: could the blurring be reversed?

With extremely minor image manipulation, I found that the blurred name indeed could be reversed, perhaps just sufficiently to make identification possible. Of course, the image could have been taken by a different employee, so I have redacted the altered picture.

[Image redacted upon consideration, because I do not wish to accidentally impugn a possibly-noninvolved person.]

Curious, I thought to cross-reference with LinkedIn, and indeed, I found a Software Engineer at Google whose name resembled the de-blurred pic.

The reason for this exercise goes beyond the minor exercise of experimenting to see if image blurring can be reversed — obviously, it can be in some cases. (You may recall the widely-publicised story of a criminal who distorted his face in photos, thinking to elude capture, but police reversed the distortion and successfully identified and captured him.)

It seems like media of all kinds is getting leaked from corporations and governments these days. If it’s not secret memos from inside Twitter it’s lost/stolen new iPhone prototypes, and information seems to be thrown about willy-nilly, right and left. With half the things “exposed” on TechCrunch or Gizmodo — you can’t help but wonder whether we’re all being manipulated by these large corporations — almost as if it’s become some sort of game where advance releases of information are intended to whet our appetites and excitement for new products, or perhaps it’s to frighten their competition. The recent debacles involving government secrets getting exposed en masse via Wikileaks make me hope that perhaps the whole leaks-as-top-news might finally be jumping the shark.

What I really mourn, however, is the total lack of discretion that we seem to be developing as a culture. Isn’t there any honor any more? Most of the employees involved with leaking information out of their companies actually have signed nondisclosure agreements when they were hired-on. Not only is it perhaps unwise to bite the hand that feeds you, there’s an even bigger ethical issue involved with publicly-traded companies, since you’re supposed to be representing the interests of the many stockholders who are out there.

I think the TechCrunches of the world should really be taking this into account as well. Does our childish desire for momentary titillation over confidential memos or early pix of new products outweigh the need to protect us as a society from the downsides of the push for instant gratification? It’s the journalists and news organizations which are also responsible for encouraging and publishing the ill-gotten data, similar to the seedy pawnbroker who knowingly peddles stolen goods.

Of course, there is a difference between whistleblowers who expose something for the public good as well, and I think that sort of information should be treated differently. If people are being bilked or some product is getting released which would be a danger to consumers — these sorts of things should be exposed as a part of trying to improve society and protect the innocent. However, it seems more often to be the case that leaking employees are motivated by getting some sort of bribe for relaying info that doesn’t belong to them, or they’re merely deriving some sort of thrill of perceived self-importance by having their hands on information that others want. Perhaps for some disgruntled employees the motivation is even revenge of some sort.

There also appears to be a growing belief in technology fields that “information wants to be free,” and that theory is on the verge of being thrown about as a philosophy and rationalization for releasing information. I don’t think we should confuse a theory about the evolution of information with what should be one’s personal ethics.

While there may be some cases of companies purposefully leaking info as a manipulative means of exciting free publicity, there are also instances where they show that they fully intend to protect their confidential information, such as Google’s recent firing of the employee who leaked the memo about planned raises. While the means for smuggling information out of a company or government office have become more varied, and there is now an endless supply of possible venues for publishing the data, the laws haven’t actually changed and employees should be aware that their momentary thrill might cost what could’ve been a longer career at an organization.

In general, individuals should honor the nondisclosure agreements they’ve signed with their employers. Employees and publishers should seek to protect innocent stockholders from the possible damage of premature release of product information in the marketplace.


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4 Responses to “Did TechCrunch’s Leaked Image Expose Their Google Informant?”

  1. […] interesting, to me at least, is a related article written by Search Engine Land columnist Chris Silver Smith on his personal blog, in which he takes […]

  2. Frank Reed says:

    Asking for honor in today’s business world is asking a lot. I mourn this modern day fact of life just like you do. How is it solved or rectified? Not sure it can be because once someone feels that they can do anything and there are no real repercussions its hard to convince then that they were ever wrong. No one else ever said they were and then suddenly they are doing something inappropriate? They won’t listen because that would require sacrifice.

    TechCrunch has never been one for using the “discretion is the better art of valor” approach either and that’s what made their name for them.

    We live in a new world order that is headed for some major issues but no one will listen because they are too busy doing what they want to do rather than what they should do.

    As for me? I’ll try to do what’s right. That’s all I can really control to some degree.

  3. Adam Sherk says:

    Nice work Chris, that was a clever idea. And you make a great point about the larger issues. Privacy and discretion do matter.

  4. […] allow out photos, even when you try to blur out sensitive information. As I’ve proved before, blurring and pixelation can sometimes be reversed. The type of blurring or bitmapping done to the White House Situation Room photo is pretty lossy […]