Thursday, 27 September 2018 06:07

Scientist tells Senate Google China plan evaded privacy review

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Scientist tells Senate Google China plan evaded privacy review Pixabay

Ahead of a Google official appearing at a US Senate hearing, a scientist who formerly worked for the company has thrown fresh fuel on the fire around the plan to provide a censored search engine for use in China.

Jack Poulson, who quit Google in August in protest at the plan, was reported in The Intercept — the publication that first broke the story about Google China plan — as having written to US senators that an internal privacy review of the search system appeared to have been "actively subverted".

Poulson was reported to have sent a letter to members of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, wherein he stated that "a pattern of unethical and unaccountable decision making from company leadership" had been exhibited by Google. The company's chief privacy officer Keith Enright is scheduled to appear before this panel on Thursday Australian time.

He said the privacy reviewers went over the code developed for the China project, known as Dragonfly, and were told that it did not involve user data.

The news about the China plan broke on 1 August. After that, the reviewers examined the code afresh and realised that they had been tricked by those involved in the Dragonfly project, The Intercept claimed.

Poulson said the censorship blacklist that had been built for Dragonfly included the English term “human rights,” the Mandarin terms for “student protest” and “Nobel prize,” and “very large numbers of phrases involving ‘Xi Jinping’ and other members” of the ruling regime.

There have been reports about internal unrest among Google employees over the project. A letter circulated about the "urgent moral and ethical issues" surrounding the project has been 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. And another claimed that the China search app would link searches to phone numbers.

More recently, Google was reported to have made employees erase from their systems a confidential memo containing details about the China plan.

“Dragonfly is part of a broad pattern of unaccountable decision-making across the tech industry,” Poulson said in his letter.

“It has been made clear, both by word and by action, that the leadership at Google will be clamping down on the types of internal investigation that were necessary to bring Project Dragonfly to light. I would hope that the committee would help protect the environment needed for future whistleblowers by taking steps to guarantee ethical transparency and oversight across Silicon Valley.”

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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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