It’s now confirmed that Google’s long suspected assistance to the Communist government of China to censor and monitor its citizens’ online activity runs deeper and is more proactive that initially thought.
The Intercept published a bombshell report based on internal Google whistle-blower testimony which shows the internet giant plans to launch a search engine for China with censorship capabilities built into it, which provides a backdoor monitoring platform allowing government authorities to track users’ entire search history and even their location.
The search system is code-named “Dragonfly,” according to a confidential memo outlining the project that circulated inside the company — the contents of which have been leaked to The Intercept by an engineer who worked on the search engine. The Google engineer said that employees were forced by Google bosses to delete the memo as it was authored and circulated among a group voicing concern and dissent over the planned search engine.
The Intercept summarizes the confidential memo’s contents as follows:
The memo, authored by a Google engineer who was asked to work on the project, disclosed that the search system, code-named Dragonfly, would require users to log in to perform searches, track their location — and share the resulting history with a Chinese partner who would have “unilateral access” to the data.
By requiring users to log-in to perform a simple search, system administrators can immediately identify the person behind the search and their profile; and a Chinese partner would then have the capability to “selectively edit search result pages” with few limitations, according to the memo.
The “Chinese partner” — thought to be a private company working in tandem with the Chinese government — will store user information in a database on servers in Taiwan.
A Dragonfly search engine prototype is under development for use as an app on Android and iOS devices, which would require sign-in. According to the leaked memo a user’s searches will be linked up with their personal phone number, and thus even their movements and IP addresses associated with the device will be stored.
The confidential “dissent” memo which Google executives have reportedly been relentless in attempting to stamp out accuses the company of creating “spy tools” on behalf of the Chinese government in order to monitor citizens’ activity. The Intercept report further describes the specially designed system as removing searches related to democracy, human rights, and peaceful protest.
As the nature of the search system became more understood by those brought in to design it, a quiet protest movement within Google headquarters began.
The Intercept report details aggressive tactics by Google’s leadership to try and squash the mounting criticism:
According to three sources familiar with the incident, Google leadership discovered the memo and were furious that secret details about the China censorship were being passed between employees who were not supposed to have any knowledge about it.
Subsequently, Google human resources personnel emailed employees who were believed to have accessed or saved copies of the memo and ordered them to immediately delete it from their computers. Emails demanding deletion of the memo contained “pixel trackers” that notified human resource managers when their messages had been read, recipients determined.
The report reveals that censored and black-listed terms for the system are to include words and phrases in Mandarin like “human rights,” “student protest,” and “Nobel Prize”. And a Chinese partner company will be able to “selectively edit search result pages…unilaterally, and with few controls seemingly in place,” according to the memo.
Even though Google CEO Sundar Pichai had previously told company employees that plans for a specialized Chinese search system was in its “early stages” and merely “exploratory,” the report reveals employees were told in late July they should get the search system in “launch-ready state” to roll out in a matter of weeks, “pending approval from officials in Beijing”.
The memo reveals that at least 215 employees have been working full-time on Dragonfly, which is “larger than many Google projects,” according to the memo. The memo says further that screenshots of the app “show a project in a pretty advanced state,” and that most details about the project “have been secret from the start.”
A Google employee interviewed by The Intercept noted the duplicitous tactics used even on those tasked with working on the project: “Leadership misled engineers working on [Dragonfly] about the nature of their work, depriving them of moral agency,” the source said.
When news of Google’s work a Chinese search engine that would censor users’ search results first surfaced last summer, Google maintained that “confidentiality” was essential during the early phases of any project, and that transparency would be greater in the final stages.
Google has been silent in the hours after The Intercept report was published Friday afternoon, but previously issued the following statement related to its work in China:
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.