Google China’s search engine app, designed to be compliant with Chinese censorship laws, will associate all users’ searches with their phone numbers, making it easier for the Chinese government to identify those searching for “forbidden” information, according to leaks obtained by The Intercept. “Dragonfly,” as it is codenamed, is being developed for Android phones as a means for Google China to re-enter the Chinese market after ending service to the totalitarian nation back in 2010. The app will assist in violating the human rights of Chinese citizens in addition to hiding search results deemed “sensitive” by the Chinese Communist Party, including searches as mundane as “student protest” or, ironically, “human rights.”
The app will also replace search results regarding weather and air pollution conditions with data provided by a Government-approved source in Beijing. Like censorship of historical and contemporary news and information, China has a history of manipulating air pollution data reports for cities within the country.
Concern from Human Rights Organizations
This new information about Google China comes only a day after it was reported that seven Google employees have resigned in protest of Project Dragonfly, citing the lack of transparency and accountability within the search giant. Shockingly, most employees had to learn about the company’s decision to work with China from sites like this and The Intercept, as Google has maintained strict secrecy over the project.
[T]he development of such a search engine is “an alarming capitulation by Google on human rights” and could result in the company “directly contributing to, or [becoming] complicit in, human rights violations.”
A coalition of 14 leading human rights organizations have condemned Google, and demanded they cease development on the search app, in response to the revelation. These organizations (Access Now, Amnesty International, Article 19, Center for Democracy and Technology, the Committee to Protect Journalists, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Human Rights in China, Human Rights Watch, Independent Chinese PEN Centre, International Service for Human Rights, PEN International, Privacy International, Reporters without Borders, and WITNESS) issued their demands in an open letter to Google CEO Sundar Pachai on Tuesday, stating that the development of such a search engine is “an alarming capitulation by Google on human rights” and could result in the company “directly contributing to, or [becoming] complicit in, human rights violations.”
These concerns are amplified by the fact that data stored on Google servers could be routinely used by the Chinese government to identify and arrest Chinese journalists who speak out against the atrocities committed within China.
This means individual people’s searches could be easily tracked – and any user seeking out information banned by the government could potentially be at risk of interrogation or detention […]
According to The Intercept, sources familiar with the project said that prototypes of the search engine linked the search app on a user’s Android smartphone with their phone number. This means individual people’s searches could be easily tracked – and any user seeking out information banned by the government could potentially be at risk of interrogation or detention if security agencies were to obtain the search records from Google. “This is very problematic from a privacy point of view, because it would allow far more detailed tracking and profiling of people’s behavior,” senior internet researcher Cynthia Wong has said, “linking searches to a phone number would make it much harder for people to avoid the kind of overreaching government surveillance that is pervasive in China.”
Condemnation from Congress
In addition to condemnation from human rights organizations, congressmen from both parties have released an open letter to Google’s CEO addressing “grave concerns” over their decision to support Chinese censorship. Google has declined to address any criticism of their decisions, however, and in light of their refusal to take part in last week’s congressional hearings on corporate bias in Silicon Valley, it appears that Google considers themselves above reproach. Across the last four weeks, they have refused communication from the US Congress, Amnesty International, journalists and even their own employees with regards to the increasing evidence of malfeasance, intent to influence elections, and support for human rights violators.
Such arrogance on the part of the single largest internet company does not bode well for anyone. Any tools developed for China could be easily implemented in Western markets, without anyone knowing it had been done. If Google refuses to publicly address these decisions, the world has no reason to maintain their trust with the “Don’t Be Evil” Empire.