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Ryan Gallagher @rj_gallagher
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I spoke to @YonatanZunger, who was until last year a 14-year veteran of Google & one of the leading engineers at the company. He was among a small group who had been asked to work on Dragonfly -- he was tasked with producing a privacy review of the China search engine.
Zunger is the first person with direct involvement in Dragonfly to go on the record about the project. He told me it was managed in a "highly unusual" way from the outset.
Zunger said that in early 2017 he pointed out to executives managing Dragonfly that Chinese people could be at risk of interrogation or detention if they were found to have used Google to seek out information banned by the government.
But Scott Beaumont, Google’s head of operations in China & one of the key architects of Dragonfly, did not view Zunger’s concerns as significant enough to merit a change of course, according to four sources.
Beaumont, a British citizen who began his career working for an investment bank, then worked w/ other execs to shut out members of the company’s security & privacy team from key meetings about the search engine & tried to sideline the privacy review, the four sources said.
Beaumont “wanted the privacy review [of Dragonfly] to be pro forma and thought it should defer entirely to his views of what the product ought to be. He did not feel that the security, privacy, and legal teams should be able to question his product decisions," Zunger said.
Beaumont maintained an "an openly adversarial relationship" with the security, privacy & legal teams, Zunger added, a stance that was "quite outside the Google norm.”
During one meeting in 2017, Beaumont was briefed on aspects of Dragonfly that Google’s privacy & security teams planned to assess -- such as whether users in China would have control over their own data.
“I don’t know if I want you asking those questions,” Beaumont retorted, according to Zunger, who said the comment was “quite surprising to those in the room.”
Nevertheless, Zunger and his colleagues got on with their job, & produced a privacy report that highlighted problematic scenarios that could arise once the censored search engine launched in China.
The report concluded that Google would be expected to function in China as part of the ruling Communist Party’s authoritarian system of policing & surveillance.
The report added that, unlike in Europe or North America, in China it would be difficult, if not impossible, for Google to legally push back against govt requests, or to refuse to build systems specifically for surveillance, or to even notify people how their data may be used.
Zunger had planned to share the privacy report & discuss its findings during a scheduled meeting with the company’s senior leadership, including CEO @SundarPichai. But the meeting was repeatedly postponed.
When the meeting did finally take place, in late June 2017, Zunger & members of Google’s security team were not notified, so they missed it. Zunger felt that this was a deliberate attempt to exclude them.
Zunger was furious, but had already decided to quit Google b/c he had received an offer to join a start-up company (Humu) founded by former colleagues. He says if he hadn't got that offer when he did, he'd have quit Google over Dragonfly.
“The [Dragonfly] project, as it was then specified, was not something I could sign off on in good conscience,” Zunger told me.
You can read more from Zunger here -- there's so many wild details in this piece, too many to tweet.…
The story also raises significant new questions about the involvement of Google co-founder Sergey Brin in the planning of Dragonfly.
Google pulled out of China in 2010 largely because at that time Brin had become very uncomfortable with the level of censorship & surveillance carried out by China's authoritarian government.
Brin said at the time he wanted to show the world that Google was “opposing censorship & speaking out for the freedom of political dissent.”
When we revealed Dragonfly back in August, many people inside & outside of Google were stunned b/c they didn't understand how Brin could have reversed his strongly held position on censorship -- particularly given that censorship & survellance have worsened in China since 2010.
In late August, amid the backlash over the Dragonfly revelations, Brin addressed staff at Google's Mountain View headquarters. During an all hands meeting, he said that he knew nothing about the project until @theintercept caused a "kerfuffle" by disclosing it.
Brin's statement at the meeting surprised staff who had worked on Dragonfly, because Beaumont, the company’s China chief, had suggested to them that Brin supported the project.
Beaumont had told staff that Brin had met with senior Chinese government officials & informed them of his desire for Google to re-enter the Chinese market, obeying local laws as necessary.
The Dragonfly teams were instructed, however, that they were not permitted to discuss the issue directly with Brin or other members of Google’s senior leadership team. Beaumont wanted all communication with top leadership to be directed through him.
Some of those working on Dragonfly believed that Beaumont may have misrepresented Brin’s position in an attempt to reassure them that the effort was fully supported at the highest levels of the company, when that may not have been the truth.
“How much did Sergey know? I am guessing very little,” said one Google source, “because I think Scott [Beaumont] went to great lengths to ensure that was the case.”
Google CEO @SundarPichai has tried to play down Dragonfly publicly, claiming it was an "experiment" that the company is not sure if it "would or could" launch the search engine in China.
Privately, a different picture was presented: Google executives said they aimed to launch Dragonfly between January & April 2019 or sooner if possible.
According to a previously undisclosed transcript, Beaumont told employees during a meeting this summer that "there has been a really positive change in tone towards Google during @SundarPichai's recent visits [to China]."
Beaumont added: “Part of our task over the past few yrs has been to re-establish that Google can be a trusted operator in China...We're fairly confident that, outside of trade discussions, there's a positive consensus across govt entities to allow Google to re-engage in China.”
When Dragonfly leaked, Beaumont fumed, sources said. “His ideal circumstance was that most people would find out about this project the day it launched."

He told colleagues he feared the leaks may have scuppered the prospect of Google launching the platform in the short term.
Once you read my new story & the details about how Google execs shut out the privacy team on Dragonfly, revisit what Google's privacy chief told Congress in Sept:
"I'm not clear on the contours of what is in scope or out of the scope of that project."…
And also read this recent piece by @mhbergen, in which @Google_Comms claimed "members of the privacy team were involved [in Dragonfly] from the beginning." That's true, if by "involved" they actually meant "sidelined & treated like shit."…
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