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In a bid to woo Google, Palo Alto shared confidential utility information

City says it will ask company to destroy sensitive data provided over several years as part of non-disclosure agreements

When Google announced in March 2010 its plans to bring ultra-high-speed internet to a few lucky communities, Palo Alto officials literally danced with joy.

The city's decadelong effort to build Fiber to the Home, a municipal fiber network, had stalled, and officials here, like elsewhere, were pinning their hopes on the Mountain View-based giant to deliver 1-gigabit-per-second internet to all residents and businesses. While they didn't jump into a frozen lake like the mayor of Duluth, Minnesota, Palo Alto's managers and Utilities employees boogied to the Village People's "Y-M-C-A" in a video for Google's amusement.

Its efforts turned out for naught, as Google chose Kansas City, Missouri, in 2011 to showcase its fiber-optic service. But while Palo Alto's hopes for fiber fizzled once again, its desire to cooperate with Google did not. Even after Google shifted its sights elsewhere, the city continued to provide the search giant with sensitive, confidential information about the city's transmission systems, manholes, infrastructure-maintenance plans and properties -- at least four times, according to newly released documents.

The first "confidentiality and non-disclosure agreement" that the city and Google Fiber signed on Oct. 17, 2012, and three later non-disclosure agreements, were obtained by the community-organizing group The Partnership for Working Families and labor think tank Working Partnerships USA through public-record requests and published in The Washington Post earlier this week. Palo Alto is one of nine municipalities that provided information in response to the requests (San Jose; Boulder, Colorado; Clarksville, Tennessee; Council Bluffs, Iowa; Lenoir, North Carolina; Midlothian, Texas; Lithia, Georgia; and Dalles, Oregon, are the others).

In surveying the information, the nonprofits focused on Google's real estate deals in San Jose, where it is planning to build a campus. Working Partnerships USA filed a lawsuit in November alleging that the city had signed "legally questionable NDAs with Google," according to the group's statement. These agreements "refused to disclose critical public records while negotiating the sale of huge swaths of public land to the company for a new mega-campus."

In Palo Alto, by contrast, the non-disclosure agreements focused on technical information pertaining to utilities, including unspecified customer information and GIS data, the reports show. The city had signed at least four non-disclosure agreements with Google — in 2012, 2013, 2014 and 2016 — as part of its effort to partner with the tech giant on a fiber-optic system. The agreement that the city signed in April 2014, a time of particularly intense information sharing, provides for disclosure to Google of confidential information that "could be useful to a person in planning an attack on critical infrastructure."

Despite these efforts, Palo Alto's cooperation with Google appeared to net the city little benefit. In July 2016, Google Fiber announced that it would not be building a fiber network in Palo Alto, San Jose, Mountain View or any other municipalities that it had identified as "potential Fiber cities." The city's exploration that year of a "co-build" agreement, which called for the city to build a municipal system in parallel with Google's network, also fizzled.

The documents suggest that throughout the negotiations, the city viewed NDAs as a proper mechanism to ensure that the company would not share or misuse sensitive information. In 2012, the city's former Chief Information Officer Jonathan Reichental signed an agreement with Google as part of the city's continuing effort to explore a fiber build-out. The agreement doesn't indicate exactly what information the city had shared, though it required Google to use a "reasonable degree of care to protect confidential information and to prevent any unauthorized use of disclosure of confidential information."

At times, Google's requests for information appeared to have exceeded what was covered in the agreements. In August 2013, Google asked for Geographic Information Systems (GIS) data pertaining to the city's utility system. Deputy City Attorney Albert Yang suggested that this request was not covered by the 2012 agreement, which Yang noted covered a specific purpose that Reichental was pursuing with Google.

"I'd rather not take the position that the existing NDA can be expanded to the new issue we are dealing with here," Yang wrote to Josh Wallace of the Utilities Department.

As a result, Google and the city signed an additional NDA related specifically to "Geographic Information Systems (GIS) data maintained by the City of Palo Alto Utilities Department in order to evaluate a potential business transaction."

The agreement defined "confidential information" as "all information, data, analyses, documents, ideas, records, reports, notes, interpretations, opinions, forecasts and materials provided by the city, in oral, written, electronic, computer-readable, or other tangible or intangible form, whether in draft or final form, whether or not it is labeled, marked or otherwise identified as 'confidential' or 'proprietary information.'"

The following year, as Google expanded further its national fiber program, it listed Palo Alto as a "potential Fiber city." Seeking to be selected, Palo Alto officials began working on a Google Fiber City Checklist, a packet of details on everything from manhole locations, underground utility routes, streetlights, lot lines, utility poles, pavement conditions and zoning designations.

As part of the process, the city and Google signed another non-disclosure agreement for the purpose of "assessment and provision of a fiber optic network in the city," according to the document. The agreement included information about transmission-system operations and "critical infrastructure information," defined by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) to mean "specific engineering, vulnerability, or detailed design information about proposed or existing critical infrastructure." This includes "details about the production, generation, transportation, transmission or distribution of energy" that "could be useful to a person in planning an attack on critical infrastructure" and that are "exempt from the mandatory disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act."

Palo Alto wasn't the only city working with Google on a document release. In early April, Reichental received an email from his counterpart in Mountain View, Chief Information Officer Roger Jensen. In the past, Jensen wrote, Mountain View "hasn't released full maps of sensitive infrastructure information such as water lines."

"We usually only release this information on an as-needed basis, for specific streets or areas. Is PA releasing all of this information to Google? I'm operating under the assumption everything we give them is going to show up on Google Earth," Jensen wrote.

Reichental had no such qualms, partly because of the non-disclosure agreement.

"We are sharing our non-public information under an NDA," wrote Reichental, who resigned last year to take a position with Oracle. "This also prohibits use outside of the Google checklist."

As it awaited Google's decision on its next batch of "fiber cities," Palo Alto also began exploring in 2015 a different type of relationship with the company: a "co-build" concept in which the city and Google would consider building parallel networks. Championed by City Councilman Tom DuBois, the concept called for the city to lay its own conduit while telecoms expand theirs. DuBois argued that this was a "critical time" to talk to Google and other telecom companies precisely because they were preparing to make announcements on new projects.

With the City Council backing the co-build model, the city and Google signed yet another non-disclosure agreement in June 2016. Signed by Reichental, former City Manager James Keene and current City Manager Ed Shikada (who was at the time serving as assistant city manager and general manager of utilities), the agreement doesn't specify exactly what type of information the city would be releasing to Google, though it states that the parties "desire to evaluate, negotiate and possibly enter into a business transaction that would include shared responsibility for construction of a fiber-to-the-premises (FTTP) network in Palo Alto" and includes "utilities customer data" in its definition of "confidential information."

The new effort prompted an exchange of emails between the city and Google about a potential Master Encroachment Agreement that the city would sign with Google. The effort did not, however, pan out. By late 2016, Google had pivoted away from fiber, apparently deeming a broad expansion too costly. In early 2017, city utilities staff informed the council in a report that Google had advised staff "that they are exploring more innovative ways to deploy their network, which may include implementing wireless technologies."

DuBois, who now works at Google (he did not in 2015, when the city was considering the co-build), told the Weekly that the council was not briefed on staff's non-disclosure agreements with Google. He did not, however, see anything wrong with sharing the information.

"The fact that we were applying to be a Google Fiber city was not a secret or confidential," DuBois told the Weekly in an email. "When building a network, gas lines, sewer pipes, electrical upgrades, etc., it may require sharing details of the location of utilities, which would fall under FERC and need to be kept confidential. I am happy that staff made sure this remained confidential and not public."

And while it's not clear what Palo Alto ultimately got out of the arrangement, DuBois said the city's intention at the time of the agreement was to build out a network.

"In general, I don't think it should be shared with private companies, except when hired by the city to perform work for city services and such information is needed for safe construction and planning (to prevent digging through gas lines, power, etc.)," DuBois wrote. "Given the scale of a citywide broadband network, it likely would have been necessary to share this information if the build-out happened."

When asked about Google's policies for protecting sensitive utility information, a spokesperson for Google Fiber indicated in a statement that the company has followed its agreement with the Palo Alto. The agreement prohibits the company from using the information in any way not related to the fiber effort.

"We’ve complied with the terms of our agreement with the City, which requires us to treat all confidential information as such," Google Fiber said in a statement.

Even so, the city may soon take action to request that the company delete the data it had provided, given that Palo Alto and Google Fiber are no longer in negotiations.

Claudia Keith, chief communications officer for the city of Palo Alto, told the Weekly that it is "standard practice for the city to enter into non-disclosure agreements when providing third parties with utility information, since there can be security reasons to limit public availability of information on our facilities." The 2016 agreement, she said, was executed at a time when Palo Alto and other cities were responding to requests for information for Google Fiber.

She also indicated in response to the Weekly's inquiries that the city will ask Google to return or destroy the sensitive utility information.

"And, while we have no reason to believe there has been any compromising of this information, we will be requesting the return/destruction of materials as per the NDA," Keith told the Weekly.

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Comments

23 people like this
Posted by PhilB
a resident of St. Claire Gardens
on Feb 21, 2019 at 11:23 am

PhilB is a registered user.

Why were these agreements not disclosed to the public at the time they were signed?


21 people like this
Posted by PhilB
a resident of St. Claire Gardens
on Feb 21, 2019 at 11:23 am

PhilB is a registered user.

And, are there any more such confidential NDA agreemnts in place which have not yet been disclosed to the public?


22 people like this
Posted by Misguided DuBois
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Feb 21, 2019 at 12:20 pm

Councilmember Dubois has pushed for his silly fiber network for years, and look where it has gotten us! Palo Alto has been talking about this for 30 years - enough already! let private companies do what they do best, and let the city government do what it does best.


13 people like this
Posted by Mark Weiss
a resident of Downtown North
on Feb 21, 2019 at 1:29 pm

Mark Weiss is a registered user.

It is clearer now that the corporate behemoth reamed us for its purposes, with all too willing abetting from Emslie and Reichental.
Et tu, Dubois?


14 people like this
Posted by rsmithjr
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Feb 21, 2019 at 2:10 pm

rsmithjr is a registered user.

Many people have asked what is wrong with city-owned fiber, and why do incumbent providers so much mistrust cities going into the fiber business, or developing a close relationship with one provider.

It is not that the incumbents fear competition. It is that they object to unfair competition.

Numerous cases have been reported of cities giving an unfair advantage to one provider, especially if it is the city itself. Information is provided without delay (often data that the incumbents were denied). Cities provide cross-subsidization, with monies from other projects used to support the cities' fiber installations. Permits and inspections are done instantly and to the benefit of the cities' construction efforts. The list goes on.

Councilmember Tom DuBois has been a long-time critic of our incumbent providers and has pushed for city-owned or affiliated systems for many years. While we should be very concerned at his efforts to support Google unfairly, (before they were even planning to come here), it should not be a surprise to us.

Google very cleverly positioned itself as the savior to everyone interested in excellent fiber. Many people were probably led astray by Google's charm campaign. It was reported that the aggregate amount of money spent trying to entice Google to come to the cities was more than the value of the installations Google provided.

The end result for Google was that they discovered it was a lot harder than they had thought, and they have essentially ended their bid to overtake the existing cable business.

Meanwhile, our incumbent providers keep making the investments in this community and doing the job for us, with little help from the city and certainly no thanks. The cellular companies that keep trying to install the new infrastructure that we need keep being greeted by complaints from consumers and little action from the city to move the agenda forward.

Tom DuBois owes the residents an apology for his behaviour in this matter, and the city should start to respect our incumbent providers a bit more.


13 people like this
Posted by Wilson R
a resident of Community Center
on Feb 21, 2019 at 3:29 pm

I find it highly suspicious that CM Dubois works for Google and was advocating for his company to build a network here in Palo Alto. Who knows what kind of information the city gave up to Google in his one-man-quest to have a city fiber network?


5 people like this
Posted by jh
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Feb 21, 2019 at 3:58 pm

jh is a registered user.

Didn't the article state that this was quite a while before Dubois went to work for Google?


2 people like this
Posted by rsmithjr
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Feb 21, 2019 at 8:17 pm

rsmithjr is a registered user.

@jh,

Yes, DuBois was not working for Google at the time. There is no reason to think that he was on the take or something.


3 people like this
Posted by Bill
a resident of Barron Park
on Feb 21, 2019 at 8:40 pm

@rsmithjr

Are you Bob Smith, former Cable Co-op Board Member?

If so, how do you reconcile your baseless accusations against Councilmember Tom DuBois and Google's fiber effort with your unabashed support for incumbents, including AT&T which purchased the Cable Coop?


1 person likes this
Posted by rsmithjr
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Feb 21, 2019 at 9:12 pm

rsmithjr is a registered user.

@bill,

Yes, I am that Bob Smith.

I am not quite sure what your question is but I will try to deal with both points.

1. Regarding Councilmember DuBois, I said that he has been a "long-time critic of our incumbent providers and has pushed for city-owned or affiliated systems for many years." His public record clearly supports this, and I think he would allow that this statement is accurate. Yes, I think he owes the community an apology for his part in allowing confidential city information to be transferred to Google. I am not sure I see why you call this "baseless", it seems pretty clear to me.

2. Regarding Comcast and AT&T, I support them because they are doing the job of providing us communication services. The city has been through about 5 attempts to get into the business and is yet to do much that is useful to average residents. Comcast is also improving all of the time, and is presently offering speeds and reliability that are state-of-the-art. If someone else comes along that meets my needs more appropriately, I will likely support them. If I had had to rely on the city for fast Internet, I wouldn't be getting much done at home.

I followed Google Fiber with great interest and have noted that they have failed utterly to show the industry how it should be done, which was their original goal, despite their obtaining huge city support for their projects as a result of their successful PR. Only in the last few weeks, they Google announced that they were shutting down their Louisville system completely owing to fundamental construction problems. It is a good thing that Comcast is still here.


4 people like this
Posted by Hendrik
a resident of University South
on Feb 21, 2019 at 10:01 pm

Glad to live in a city that is business-friendly and tries to get me fast internet. Why so much negativity about this?


3 people like this
Posted by Wayne Martn
a resident of Professorville
on Feb 22, 2019 at 11:16 am

Without knowing exactly what the City gave to Google, it's a little hard to comment on this.

However, we can ask: "Why didn't the City only provide this information under the proviso that if Google didn't choose Palo Alto for one of its "fiber cities" then all of the data/information would be destroyed?"

Interesting that two of the three City officials signing the NDA are no longer employees. Also interesting is that the City Attorney wasn't on the signatory list.

At the very least, the Council should demand some sort of briefing about the information provided to Google, and what the procedure might be which the City would follow in the future should a similar situation occur requiring the City provide data to a possible enterprise partner.


7 people like this
Posted by vmshadle
a resident of Meadow Park
on Feb 22, 2019 at 12:05 pm

vmshadle is a registered user.

Why is bad judgment by government officials so fashionable all of a sudden? What about applying common sense, as in "If it sounds fishy, perhaps it smells fishy also?"


1 person likes this
Posted by Annette
a resident of College Terrace
on Feb 22, 2019 at 3:00 pm

Annette is a registered user.

PhilB asked, "Why were these agreements not disclosed to the public at the time they were signed?"

A mere week before this story ran there was a story titled "Why don't more people care about the stealing of their privacy". Do you suppose *they* thought the public didn't care?

I think some entities bank on people being too busy to notice until the problem is simply too big to ignore. And then it is often too late.

The dark side of technology strikes again!


3 people like this
Posted by George
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Feb 23, 2019 at 7:32 am

The problem here, and with so many situations like this is that information is safe, until it isn’t. In an information society where data, private data, is the coin of the realm, it is now too often exchanged, or compromised, or stolen by those entrusted to safeguard it. There are excuses - ‘we are just providing test data’ or ‘we have a NDA’ or ‘We were hacked’ but overall effect is that the data that defines us (our identities) and data that secures us (our accounts) is not being properly safeguarded. We don’t provide our city officials blanket rights to use information entrusted to it for providing electricity, for example, for any other cause, like fighting global warming or world peace initiatives or google experiments. The city should not be free to compromise this trust at will.

It’s a big deal. It’s a big problem when data is shared without consent. When you consider how many good and evil entities in the data food chain are out there hungry for your data, and for many reasons or causes, it becomes that much more essential that governments, even dinky governments like Palo Alto, safeguard the data they hold.


Like this comment
Posted by Jeff Hoel
a resident of Midtown
on Feb 27, 2019 at 2:50 pm

Thanks, Gennady, for the information. So, as early as 10-17-12, and probably earlier, City staff was working with Google to grease the skids for Google Fiber, while the public -- and possibly Council as well -- remained in the dark until Google's 02-19-14 announcement.

I urge people to read Susan Crawford's new book, "Fiber: The Coming Tech Revolution -- and Why America Might Miss It." She talks about how America's approach to telecom has been failing us, but also about how some scrappy municipalities have stepped up and shown us what's possible. Web Link

As a teaser, check out Crawford's interview with MuniNetworks' Christopher Mitchell. Web Link

In Longmont, CO, residential users who signed up for municipal FTTP when it was first available in their neighborhoods get 1-Gbps (symmetrical) internet service for only $49.95 a month. Web Link


Like this comment
Posted by john_alderman
a resident of Crescent Park
on Feb 28, 2019 at 9:55 am

john_alderman is a registered user.

@Jeff Hoel - So you are telling us Longmont has already raised it's prices 40% since they launched in 2014? How much higher before they recoup costs?


Like this comment
Posted by Jeff Hoel
a resident of Midtown
on Feb 28, 2019 at 3:44 pm

@john alderman -- As far as I know, Longmont's price for 1-Gbps (symmetrical) residential internet service has never been less than $49.95 per month. The price for people who failed to sign up soon enough used to be $99.95 per month, but that was reduced to $69.95 per month. And after the first twelve months, that drops to $59.95 per month. Web Link

According to a 09-09-16 article, Longmont's FTTP network is expected to break even in 2025. Web Link
The take rate is 53 percent. Web Link


Like this comment
Posted by Jeff Hoel
a resident of Midtown
on Feb 28, 2019 at 4:11 pm

@Misguided -- If you have evidence that Palo Alto has been talking about FTTP for 30 years (i.e., since 1989), cite it. On 08-05-96, when Council voted to deploy a dark fiber network (which, by the way, has been wildly successful), they hoped it would eventually lead to citywide FTTP, but so far, it hasn't. Web Link

Regarding the "what they do best" bromide, the City has a history of doing municipal utilities that are better than what the private sector offers. For example, the City's electricity is 100 percent carbon neutral, but costs about 40 percent less than PG&E's electricity costs (page 8).
Web Link


Like this comment
Posted by Citizen
a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Mar 20, 2019 at 6:38 pm

Too bad internet prices are through the roof here. Comcast (Xfinity) means you are stuck with two-year contracts that double in price on top of another $50/mo for an unlimited data cap. We have one alternative - AT&T - which has no plans over 10mbps. Would love to see another competitor (Sonic, Google - wouldn't care at this point, as long as they disrupt Comcast). For example - for $35/mo for 60mbps doesn't sound too bad, until you realize after two years they jack the price up to $80/mo - and you're still limited in data use.


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