Google’s widely reported search engine prototype for China, which is allegedly code-named Dragonfly, not only blacklists search terms to comply with the wishes of government censors, but ties all searches to devices’ phone numbers, according to a report on Friday from the Intercept.
Google CEO Sundar Pichai in 2017.
Photo: Eric Risberg (AP)
Google pulled out of China in 2010 amid censorship concerns and a cyberattack that compromised some human rights activists’ accounts, but it is reportedly planning a return to cash in on a massive market that has been overtaken by rivals. To do so, though, they need to comply with the whims of Chinese authorities. The Intercept wrote that internal documents show “Google compiled a censorship blacklist that included terms such as ‘human rights,’ ‘student protest,’ and ‘Nobel Prize’ in Mandarin” for use in the Dragonfly project. It also added in features that appear to have been developed for the sole purpose of making it as easy as possible for the government to swoop in on anyone searching for that kind of thing:
Sources familiar with the project said that prototypes of the search engine linked the search app on a user’s Android smartphone with their phone number. This means individual people’s searches could be easily tracked – and any user seeking out information banned by the government could potentially be at risk of interrogation or detention if security agencies were to obtain the search records from Google.
“This is very problematic from a privacy point of view, because it would allow far more detailed tracking and profiling of people’s behavior,” said Cynthia Wong, senior internet researcher with Human Rights Watch. “Linking searches to a phone number would make it much harder for people to avoid the kind of overreaching government surveillance that is pervasive in China.”
Chinese law requires all internet companies operating there to store user data on the mainland, where the law grants police very broad powers even in the initial stages of an investigation (such as issuing and executing their own warrants). The Intercept previously reported that Dragonfly is a “joint venture” with an unspecified Chinese company that would have independent powers to update the blacklist, possibly without Google’s approval.
Additionally, the new Intercept report alleged that sources say “the search platform also appeared to have been tailored to replace weather and air pollution data with information provided directly by an unnamed source in Beijing.” Air pollution in Beijing is disastrous, with the city consistently ranking among the places with the worst air quality in China. The government has at times tried to hide data contradicting official air pollution measurements from the public, and it seems that the Dragonfly prototype would only show approved numbers.
In August, around 1,400 Google employees signed an open letter to management demanding “to know what we’re building” and the implementation of processes to ensure the project meets the company’s stated principles. One employee, senior research scientist Jack Poulson, told the Intercept he had resigned in protest of the effort.
“I view our intent to capitulate to censorship and surveillance demands in exchange for access to the Chinese market as a forfeiture of our values and governmental negotiating position across the globe,” Poulson told the site he had written in his resignation letter.
Since news of the project broke last month, Google declined to send a top executive such as CEO Sundar Pichai to address the US Senate Intelligence Committee, and lawmakers savaged a letter from Pichai claiming the possibility of a Chinese search engine “remains unclear.” This week, a bipartisan group of 16 US politicians, members of the House, asked the company for more answers. In a statement to Gizmodo (that Google has previously released to other outlets), a spokesperson characterised the project as merely “exploratory”:
We’ve been investing for many years to help Chinese users, from developing Android, through mobile apps such as Google Translate and Files Go, and our developer tools. But our work on search has been exploratory, and we are not close to launching a search product in China.
Google isn’t the only company apparently willing to work with the country’s censors. Apple relocated the iCloud encryption keys of Chinese users to the mainland to comply with new laws, and it has removed thousands of apps including everything from gambling to privacy tools from its App Store at the request of the government.