Sunday, 16 September 2018 06:22

Google China app would link searches to phone numbers: claim

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Google China app would link searches to phone numbers: claim Pixabay

A prototype of a censored search engine developed for China by Google links searches to the phone numbers of the individuals making those queries, a report claims.

The Intercept, which first broke the story about Google having cut a deal with Chinese authorities to develop a censored search engine, said on Friday that the censored product, codenamed Dragonfly, was built to run on Android, the mobile operating system developed by Google.

It would strip out any content that was considered sensitive by China, such as information about political dissidents, free speech, democracy, human rights and peaceful protest, reporter Ryan Gallagher wrote.

The censorship blacklist included terms like "human rights", "student protest" and Nobel Prize in Mandarin.

The disclosure of the project has led to at least five Google employees, including senior research scientist Jack Poulson, leaving the company in protest.

The news about the China plan broke on 1 August. Subsequently, there have been reports about internal unrest among Google employees over the project, which is codenamed Dragonfly.

A letter circulated about the "urgent moral and ethical issues" surrounding the project was sent around inside the company.

There have also been reports that managers at the company were trying to shut down access to any material connected to the project. Another report said that engineers had used search queries from a Chinese Web directory service owned by Google to develop blacklists for the censored search engine.

Quoting sources familiar with the project, Gallagher wrote that linking searches to phone numbers could mean that any user who looked for information on subjects that were not approved by Beijing were at risk of interrogation or detention if law enforcement agencies could obtain the search results.

The Dragonfly project is to be operated as a joint venture with a Chinese company and its staff would have the ability to update the search blacklist, the report said, adding that this raised over whether Google's US bosses would have any control over the censorship regime.

The Dragonfly project is said to have started after Google chief executive Sundar Pichai held discussions with Wang Huning, a senior figure in the Chinese Communist Party, in December 2017. Work was begun during the Western spring of 2017 and was fast-tracked after the Pichai-Huning meeting.

After the meeting with Huning, Google decided to open an artificial intelligence research centre in Beijing. In May 2018, a Google file management app was released for Chinese Internet users. And in July, Google released a “Guess The Sketch” game on WeChat, the main Chinese messaging and social media platform.

Programmers created a customised Android search app with different versions known as Maotai and Longfei and these had been demonstrated to Chinese government authorities.

Since The Intercept's first report, on 1 August, Google has made no public statement about the project, though it has been asked for a statement on more than a dozen occasions.

The final version of the app is expected to be launched in the next six to nine months, provided approval is granted by Beijing.

Google had a censored search engine operating in China from 2006 to 2010, but quit the country after its servers were hacked.

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Sam Varghese

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Sam Varghese has been writing for iTWire since 2006, a year after the site came into existence. For nearly a decade thereafter, he wrote mostly about free and open source software, based on his own use of this genre of software. Since May 2016, he has been writing across many areas of technology. He has been a journalist for nearly 40 years in India (Indian Express and Deccan Herald), the UAE (Khaleej Times) and Australia (Daily Commercial News (now defunct) and The Age). His personal blog is titled Irregular Expression.

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