Google Engineers Quit After Secretive China Project Links Phone Number To Searches

A prototype of Google's censored search engine for China links users' searches to their personal phone numbers, "thus making it easier for the Chinese government to monitor people's queries," reports The Intercept

Photo: Alex Castro / The Verge

The search engine, codenamed Dragonfly, revolves around the Android platform and is designed to remove content deemed by government officials to be sensitive or offensive - such as information about protests, free speech, political dissidents, democracy and human rights violations. 

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.

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the search platform also appeared to have been tailored to replace weather and air pollution data with information provided directly by an unnamed source in Beijing. The Chinese government has a record of manipulating details about pollution in the country’s cities. One Google source said the company had built a system, integrated as part of Dragonfly, that was “essentially hardcoded to force their [Chinese-provided] data.” -The Intercept

"This is very problematic from a privacy point of view, because it would allow far more detailed tracking and profiling of people’s behavior," says Human Rights Watch senior internet research Cynthia Wong. "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."

Human rights groups have slammed Dragonfly, insisting that it could result in Google "directly contributing to, or [becoming] complicit in, human rights violations.

Google engineers agree - and they've been resigning over the ethical concerns with the project

Approximately 1,400 Google employees have signed a letter circulating within the company, asking executives to explain exactly what the hell is going on. 

"As a company and as individuals we have a responsibility to use this power to better the world, not to support social control, violence, and oppression," the letter reads. "What is clear is that Ethical Principles on paper are not enough to ensure ethical decision making. We need transparency, oversight, and accountability mechanisms sufficient to allow informed ethical choice and deliberation across the company.

And as The Intercept noted on Thursday, senior Google research scientist Jack Poulson quit over the project, saying that the project violates the company's artificial intelligence principles, which state that Google won't create technologies "whose purpose contravenes widely accepted principles of international law and human rights."

In early August, Poulson raised concerns with his managers at Google after The Intercept revealed that the internet giant was secretly developing a Chinese search app for Android devices. The search system, code-named Dragonfly, was designed to remove content that China’s authoritarian government views as sensitive, such as information about political dissidents, free speech, democracy, human rights, and peaceful protest.

After entering into discussions with his bosses, Poulson decided in mid-August that he could no longer work for Google. He tendered his resignation and his last day at the company was August  31. -The Intercept

"I’m offended that no weight has been given to the human rights community having a consensus," said Poulson. "If you have coalition letter from 14 human rights organizations, and that can’t even make it into the discussions on the ethics behind a decision, I’d rather stand with the human rights organizations in this dispute."

And Poulson isn't the only one... six other employees have reportedly quit over Dragonfly, as reported by BuzzFeed News

While current employees declined to provide the list itself or to specify most of the names on it, three sources familiar with the matter confirmed the existence of the list, which is made up largely of software engineers whose experience at Google ranges between one and 11 years. Google declined to comment on the list.

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The revelation of Dragonfly provoked an immediate backlash within the company’s rank and file, who have high expectations for transparency from executives because of Google’s stated corporate values. One employee who’d been asked to work on the project decided to quit, another transferred teams, and internal forums were flooded with thousands of posts, comments, and emails debating the ethics of the project. -BuzzFeed

Interestingly, sometime between late April and early May, Google dropped their "Don't be evil" motto of 17 years. Maybe Turkish television has it right?