A 23-year-old Google employee named Nicholas Rotundo has been arrested and indicted by the FBI on three felony counts for blackmailing a female college student with photos he obtained from her through a nude photo scam where he posed as a researcher. The Google internal technology resident is accused of sending emails to a University of Texas Dallas undergraduate student claiming to be a scientific researcher involved in a “breast perception study.” The study supposedly needed nude photographs of the woman’s breasts in order to determine whether she would be considered for the study. He offered to pay the woman $8,500 to participate.
Once the woman had sent pictures of herself as requested she received a message from another Gmail address claiming that the sender had happened upon the naked pictures, threatening to post them online unless additional, sexually explicit pictures were sent. He threatened to upload the photos to a revenge porn site if she did not comply. Despite threats from the sender of the message the student contacted campus police, who contacted the FBI.
Rotundo graduated from the University of Texas in Dallas in May 2013. The U.S. District Court complaint states that he began cyber stalking the woman in June, which is the month he began his two-year Google residency. It does not say how he chose his victim, but a FBI agent stated that she had participated in various studies through the University’s website.
Initially Rotundo offered the woman $4,500 to participate in the fictitious study. The first email, dated June 4, claimed that the woman had been identified as a good potential candidate for a paid research study through a computer algorithm. The mail requested a “full-body nude photograph” as well as images of the woman’s breasts. It came from a sender named “Women Study,” and came from firstname.lastname@example.org.
When there was no response to the first offer, a second email came on June 28 from the same account, this time offering $6,000 for “accepted submissions.” The third email was sent Dec. 19, this time offering $8,500 “because of the need to finish the study.” The woman emailed four naked pictures to the Gmail address the following day, receiving a response that thanked her for her submission. During the ensuing 10 days she received multiple emails from the same Google Mail source that requested she retake and resubmit two of the images.
It was five weeks later, on Jan. 26, that the victim got the first threatening email, this time from a sender called “John Smarting,” from the address email@example.com. One of the photos she had submitted for the “research study” was attached “for reference.” Because the woman had been wearing a necklace in the photo, the email’s sender said she would have difficulty denying that the image was her.
In order for “John Smarting” to not spread these images about the Internet the woman was instructed to send five new pictures, as well as a one-minute video of her masturbating. He promised not to post any images or contact her again if the requested information was sent. He contacted her again later and warned her not to go to the authorities. On Sept. 15 “Smarting” contacted the woman again, this time giving her 24 hours to send the required images or she “might find something you don’t like” on a revenge porn site known as Pink Meth.
According to The Smoking Gun, who first broke the story, subpoenas were issued to Google, Time Warner Cable and Comcast in an attempt to connect the Google employee to the two Gmail accounts. He had apparently made no effort to hide his tracks, and the investigation showed that the email accounts were accessed many times from a static IP address registered to “Google Nick Rotundo.” The address on the account was his San Jose apartment.
Rotundo was arrested by FBI agents on Oct. 4, and was indicted four days later by a federal grand jury in Texas. Two cyberstalking charges have been made, each count carrying a maximum penalty of five years in prison, and a third felony charge for computer intrusion, carrying a maximum one-year prison term. When shown a picture of Rotundo, the victim stated she did recognize him. It is not known at this time whether or not Rotundo is still employed at Google.
By Beth A. Balen