Monday, 03 December 2018 09:22

Only few Google employees told of China project

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Only few Google employees told of China project Pixabay

The leadership at Google considered a project to launch a censored search engine in China so sensitive that they would only talk about it and took no notes during meetings to reduce any paper trail, two company sources have told The Intercept, adding that the privacy team was kept in the dark about the plan.

The website, which broke the story about Google's bid to re-enter China on 1 August — the company had a restricted search operation in that country from 2006 to 2010 — cited the sources as saying last week that only a few hundred of Google's 88,000 employees were told about the plan for Dragonfly, the code name for the project.

Since news of the project broke, there have been numerous developments, with the latest being a group of 200 employees publishing a letter calling on the company to cancel the project.

That came after Amnesty International issued a similar call and US Vice-President Mike Pence told Google to halt the project. The company has been silent about Dargonfly for the most part, but in October, chief executive Sundar Pichai referred to it in public, telling a conference that what had been developed up to that point was "very promising".

Last week's report said the project was considered so sensitive that some engineers and other staff were told they would be sacked if they discussed it with others who were not working on Dragonfly.

One current employee said: “They [leadership] were determined to prevent leaks about Dragonfly from spreading through the company. Their biggest fear was that internal opposition would slow our operations.”

The initial talks about the project began in 2016, but only in early 2017 was a prototype developed. It was developed as an app for Android and iOS devices and blacklisted words that would be blacklisted in China, such as "human rights", "student protest", and "Nobel Prize".

The man tasked with the privacy review of the project at the time, Yonatan Zunger, who left in 2017, indicated that his work was opposed by Google's top exeutive for China and South Korea, Scott Beaumont.

Zunger's final report said Google would be expected to function in China as part of the ruling party's authoritarian system. It also said that the company would find it impossible to push back against any government requests or refuse to build systems for surveillance.

The report was to be discussed with Pichai and other senior leaders but Zunger and members of the security team were not notified of the meeting which was held for this purpose.

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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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