Monday, November 24, 2008

The high cost of giving into temptation: Verizon workers learn the hard way

I don't know how many of them there were - Verizon's being a little bit mum on the topic - but a number of what sounds like VZ customer support reps were canned for snooping around Barack Obama's cell phone records. It sounds like a no-harm kind of deal - they were just looking, not touching - but no-harm doesn't always translate into no-foul, and this is one of those times.

This is not a good environment in which to get tossed from a relatively secure job in a company with great benefits - not to mention a company that's probably not going anywhere, which is more than you can say for a lot of household names these days.

I'm sure the morning after the long arm of corporate HR came down on them, the folks who gave into that temptation to take a quick look at That One's records are feeling like first class morons. Not to mention feeling more than a bit like they have a lump of lead in their stomach, given the looming rec/depr-ession. And given that they were fired, they probably can't even collect unemployment insurance. Talk about a gulp-a-pa-looza.

Yet I can't help but sympathize a bit with the Verizon workers involved in this situation - especially if, as it seems now, they didn't exploit the information or use it in any inappropriate, dangerous, or national security threatening way.

Of course they shouldn't have done it. But how many of us, if given the opportunity to sneak a little glance at some celebrity personal info, wouldn't do the same? Not because we wanted to do anything with it, but because it seemed kind of interesting - and because it was right there.

I can easily see the scenario.

A worker with a few empty minutes on their hands. Oh, why don't I just go into the data base and see if I can find the records of anyone famous. Let's start with A-Rod. No, Jessica Simpson. Wait, how about Barack Obama.


There they are: the man of the hour's cell phone records.

With a few more minutes, you even check out who a few of those calls came from/went to.

But that got old pretty fast, when most of the calls were to David Plouffe or David Axelrod, or to his sister in Hawaii to check on his grandmother. Calls to people you'd never heard of. Bo-ring.

A-Rod might have been more interesting: juicy calls to Madonna. And if you'd sleuthed out Jessica Simpson, maybe you could have counted her calls to Tony Romo.

Very easy to see how someone could scroll around in that big, beautiful, CRM system, killing time during a break, or while waiting for the next boring, disgruntled customer to call up to demand that they get three bucks off their next bill because they spent the day in a dead zone.

After all, isn't this the same impulse that gets us googling during our idle time, sometimes looking for real information, sometimes looking for our kindergarten boyfriends, and sometimes looking for celebrity gossip? (Is Tom Brady ever going to pop the question to Gisele Bunchen?)

I was never in a position to snoop in a corporate data base with anything interesting in it - not with a career in B2B technology marketing, that's for sure.

But I sure enjoyed it the other night when we went to our favorite neighborhood restaurant, and one of the wait staff told us that Mel Gibson had been in a while back, and left a lousy tip.

The only time I ever really saw anything juicy at work - and it was only juicy to those of us who worked at the company - was the time I found a printout of the company salary list.

This was in pre-historic days, before the advent of the personal computer, when we worked on paper-based terminals - ours were DeskWriters - connected to mainframe computers. Our terminals were in the eponymous Terminal Room, and were a shared resource. We worked off of printouts, and generally left material we were done with around so that people could write notes or doodle on it.

One evening, while waiting for some batch project to run - or, more likely, to spit out an error message half-way through - I started glancing through the pile of printouts next to my terminal, hoping to find something at least mildly entertaining.

This was in the early days of personal communication via computer. There was no Internet, but there were some primitive e-mailing types of systems, and techies were finding ways to go back and forth with each other. One of our developers was part of some early Dungeons and Dragons-type group, one that was into mild kink, and he occasionally left weird material sitting about. So sometimes there was something more interesting than printouts of forecasting models or pro forma simulations.

As I flipped through the stack of paper, what to my wondering eyes did appear was a printout of the salaries of everyone in the company.

My first impulse was, 'I can't look. That wouldn't be right.'

My second was, 'I can only look for 10 seconds.'

My third was, 'I can only read it through once.'

By the time my impulse had reached the 'I can only make one copy' level I decided that enough was enough and, before I succumbed to that particular temptation, I took the printout and went and slid it under the door of the stoner guy in accounting who I assumed had left it there.

So I understand the impulse to look. Even if you stop it before it translates into sharing and exploiting the information you find, sometimes you just want to know stuff. It's as simple as that.

I feel bad for the knuckleheads at Verizon who - bored, idle, or just plain nosy - gave into that temptation to search on the name "Obama" and see what they came up with.

I bet they're wishing now that they spent those time-wasting minutes staring off into space, rather than wondering who the hell David Plouffe is.


K. said...

Wasn't Verizon one of the companies that laid down for Bush when he wanted the government to conduct warrantless surveillance on cell phones? Once again, the big shots get away with the real crime while the workers are burned at the stake over an minor infraction stemming from-- as you say -- a very human impulse.

Seems to me that -- given no malicious intent or results -- these poor boobs deserve a tongue lashing and a note in their personnel files. Followed up by a company-wide email warning against this behavior and threatening dire consequences.

On the other hand, they're probably all now eligible for fellowships with the Heritage Foundation.

Nooner said...

I certainly learned the hard way at Verizon. I recently received a pink slip from them which they were more than happy to give me after only five months on the job! They contacted me and promoted me into a Marketing Specialist position just to lay me off five months later!

To read the whole story go here: