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Ryan Gallagher @rj_gallagher
, 22 tweets, 5 min read Read on Twitter
NEW: Google bosses have suppressed an explosive memo circulating inside the company revealing its censored China search plan. The memo said the search system would store users' location data & share their search records "unilaterally" w/ a Chinese company:…
The memo was authored by an engineer who said they were asked to work on the censored search project, code-named Dragonfly. It began circulating in early September & contained a detailed analysis of the censored search system based on an internal review.
Google executives discovered that the memo was being passed around the company & responded furiously. People who had viewed or saved the memo were ordered to immediately delete copies of it & cease sharing it with others.
Google human resources staff contacted people who they believed had viewed the memo & called some of them in for meetings. The email they sent staff contained "tracking pixels" so that they could confirm when their message had been opened.
The memo said that a prototype of the censored search engine was being developed for China as an app called "Maotai" for both Android & iOS devices. The app would force users to sign in & users’ searches would be stored & associated with their personal phone number, it said.
The memo adds that Chinese users’ movements (latitude & longitude data) would also be logged, along w/ the IP address of their device & links they clicked on. It accuses developers working on Dragonfly of creating “spying tools” for the Chinese government to monitor its citizens.
People’s search histories, location info & other private data, would be sent out of China to a database in Taiwan, the memo states. But the data would also be provided to employees of a Chinese company who would be granted “unilateral access” to the system, it says.
That is extremely significant; a Chinese company maintaining a copy of users’ search data means that, by extension, the data would be accessible to Chinese authorities, who have broad powers to obtain information that is held or processed on the country’s mainland.
A concern human rights groups have expressed about Dragonfly is that it could place users’ at risk of Chinese govt surveillance – & people in China searching for blacklisted words could be interrogated or detained. Chinese authorities routinely target activists & journalists.
I spoke to Amnesty's @PatrickPoon about the memo. The plan it outlined "will completely put users’ privacy and safety at risk," he said. "Google needs to immediately explain if the app will involve such arrangements. It’s time to give the public full transparency of the project.”
The search engine will “blacklist sensitive queries” so “no results will be shown” when people enter certain words or phrases, docs show. Blacklisted search terms on a prototype of the search engine include “human rights,” “student protest,” & “Nobel Prize” in Mandarin.
According to the memo, aside from being able to access users’ search data, the Chinese partner company could add to the censorship blacklists: it would be able to “selectively edit search result pages…unilaterally, & with few controls seemingly in place," the memo says.
After @theintercept first exposed Dragonfly in early August, Google CEO @SundarPichai claimed to employees in a meeting that the plan was in its “early stages” & “exploratory.” The memo calls into question the honesty of Pichai’s statements.
Information stored on Google’s internal networks about Dragonfly “paints a very different picture,” the memo says. “The statement from our high-level leadership that Dragonfly is just an experiment seems wrong.”
The memo identifies at least 215 employees who appear to have been tasked with working full-time on Dragonfly, a number it says is “larger than many Google projects.”
It says source code associated with the project dates back to May 2017, & “many infrastructure parts predate” that. Moreover, screenshots of the app “show a project in a pretty advanced state."
Most of the details about the project “have been secret from the start,” the memo says, adding that “after the existence of Dragonfly leaked, engineers working on the project were also quick to hide all of their code.”
"More than the project itself, I hate the culture of secrecy that has been built around it," the memo's author wrote.
You can read the full story, & more details from the leaked memo, here:…
A shout out to my co-author on this piece, @lhfang, who did vital work, & indispensable editor @ryantate, who put in a shift late last night so we could get the story out today. Big thanks to both of you.
An ex-Google engineer wrote to me about our new piece: "It's the most disturbing story to date...just returning to China seems like a bad idea. But storing or handing off Chinese user data? Chinese citizens who get busted for doing subversive things get sent to labor camps." 1/2
"And the lying about the plans to build this internally is going to upset even more people. It's also upsetting that a team to identify malicious leaks of [intellectual property] is apparently now being used to police internal politics?" 2/2
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