Google Suppresses Memo and Inquiries About Controversial Search Engine for China

October 4, 2018 - 8 minutes read

Last month, we wrote about Google’s newest project in China: a censored search engine, known in the company as “Project Dragonfly”. As with any Google movement in China, there was (and still is) a lot of opposition to the move; human rights activists and several hundred Google employees have spoken out against the “urgent moral and ethical issues” the project causes.

Google’s Colorful History with China

You’re probably remembering when Google first pulled out of China almost a decade ago. The San Francisco-based tech giant strongly disagreed with the country’s non-negotiable censorship request. Since then, the company got a new CEO, among many other changes internally. Now, Google is open to a censored search engine that would yield no results for queries involving the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989, human rights, and student protests.

But Google’s lagging behind by not reaching China’s multi-billion Internet users; it’s missing out on user data and advertising revenues. China, on the other hand, has gotten worse with public humiliations for jaywalking, giving law enforcement AI-enabled facial recognition tools, and continuing to censor foreign content.

The Senate Hearing

The hearing took place to talk about data privacy; representatives from Amazon, Apple, Twitter, and other tech and internet service companies were in attendance.

Google sent their chief privacy officer, Keith Enright, to field questions from senators about the company’s intentions in offering a censored search engine mobile app developed for Chinese consumers.

Senators asked Enright about how Google’s policies regarding user privacy would translate to the Chinese product; they’d recently heard that the company planned to link searches to users’ cell phone numbers. Would this data be sold to the Chinese government to punish any non-abiding Chinese citizens?

Enright simply answered most questions vaguely: “I will say that my understanding is that we are not, in fact, close to launching a search product in China, and whether we would or could at some point in the future remains unclear. If we were, in fact, to finalize a plan to launch a search product in China, my team would be actively engaged.”

No New Information Provided

He declined to speak about the implications of privacy and human rights resulting from use of the Chinese app.

Senator Ted Cruz, a Republican representative for Texas, asked Enright if Project Dragonfly existed. If so, Cruz asked, what is it?

Enright vaguely answered again: “I’m not clear on the contours of what is in scope or out of the scope of that project.”

When Cruz prodded Enright about whether Enright thinks China’s government censors content its citizens see, Enright once again vaguely responded, “As the privacy representative of Google I’m not sure that have an informed opinion on that question.”

When asked if Enright thinks Google’s search results are biased, Enright said no. When asked if Google supports laws surrounding protecting data, Enright responded with a yes.

The Infamous Memo

Earlier in September, Google deleted an employee-written memo circulated internally; it told employees that Google was working on Project Dragonfly, and it was to be prepared to launch the search engine at a moment’s notice when Beijing officials approve it.

The memo said that Chinese users would be required to log in before being allowed to search; the app would track location and share the search history with a Chinese company that would have “unilateral access” to the users’ data.

After the memo was deleted, Google human resources employees reached out to employees they thought accessed the memo or saved a copy. The employees were told to immediately delete the memo, an email that came with pixel tracking that alerted human resources when the email was opened and read.

Lack of Data Privacy

The memo also detailed that Chinese users’ movements, their IP address, and clicked links would be important data to collect and store. Google would partner with a Chinese company that could add to Google’s blacklisted search queries and even edit search results.

Because any Chinese company is involved with this project, the Chinese government could demand access to the data at any time. Human rights activists said Chinese citizens would be in danger, interrogated, or detained.

Patrick Poon is a researcher based in Hong Kong at Amnesty International. He is concerned about Project Dragonfly, saying, “It’s alarming to hear that such information will be stored and, potentially, easily shared with the Chinese authorities. It will completely put users’ privacy and safety at risk. Google needs to immediately explain if the app will involve such arrangements. It’s time to give the public full transparency of the project.”

We Still Don’t Know Anything

When Google initially pulled out of China, they cited that the government was too strict and overbearing. The Chinese government was hacking into Gmail accounts of suspects and censoring whatever Google search results they could.

And recently with Google’s renewed interest in China, Google’s become even more private about releasing information. Often, the American public hears about these “projects” when the project has already been fleshed out internally and a minimum viable product has already been developed. In other words, we don’t hear about Google’s innovations early enough to have a say in what the company does.

Although Sundar Pichai, the current CEO of Google, claimed that Dragonfly wasn’t well-developed yet, you can extrapolate what it means when there are 215+ employees assigned to work on Dragonfly full-time. This amount of employees working on one project makes the project one of the biggest at the company; source code even started developing back in May 2017.

The memo’s author said they stood in opposition to Chinese censorship, but “more than the project itself, I hate the culture of secrecy that has been built around it.”

Not Enough Transparency

If none of this instills fear or anger in you, you should know that Google is highly aggressive against leaks, and it has a security and investigation team to stop leaks, dubbed “stopleaks” internally. The team is also tasked with monitoring discussions internally between employees.

An employee who read the memo said it mentioned that “leadership misled engineers working on [Dragonfly] about the nature of their work, depriving them of moral agency”.

All of this, including Enright’s vague testimony, have hurt Google’s, and subsequently the rest of Silicon Valley’s, trustworthiness among the public. We don’t know if Google really follows the “Don’t be evil” motto it was founded on, and that uncertainty will be difficult to reverse.

What do you think about Google’s recent activity, internally and in China?

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