Tech giant Google, eager to become a player in the massive Chinese market, has designed a search engine that will allow the Chinese government to be able to scan a user’s search history, according to published reports.
According to a report in The Intercept, the prototype has been built for Android phones, and would allow the government to know which phone number searched for which information.
The report also said that Google was creating a censorship blacklist that included search terms such as “human rights,” “student protest,” and “Nobel Prize.”
“This is very problematic from a privacy point of view, because it would allow far more detailed tracking and profiling of people’s behavior,” said Cynthia Wong of Human Rights Watch. “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.”
According to a report in The Intercept about an internal memo explaining how the system would work, a Chinese partner would have vast power to censor and scan user behavior.
“It’s alarming to hear that such information will be stored and, potentially, easily shared with the Chinese authorities,” said Patrick Poon of Amnesty International.
“It will completely put users’ privacy and safety at risk. Google needs to immediately explain if the app will involve such arrangements. It’s time to give the public full transparency of the project,” he said.
Initial reports about the project, code named Dragonfly, began to emerge in August. In response, a bipartisan group of U.S. senators asked Google CEO Sundar Pichai for the facts, according to a letter released by the office of Florida Republican Marco Rubio.
“If true, this reported plan is deeply troubling and risks making Google complicit in human rights abuses related to China’s rigorous censorship regime,” the letter read. The letter also asked Google for details about the project.
The response did not appease Virginia Democrat Mark Warner, according to The Associated Press. Warner says he was “truly disappointed” in Pichai’s response, which claimed that the future of a search engine made specifically for China “remains unclear.”
Publicly, Google has been coy.
“We’ve been investing for many years to help Chinese users, from developing Android, through mobile apps such as Google Translate and Files Go, and our developer tools,” Google has said in a statement, The Verge reported. “But our work on search has been exploratory, and we are not close to launching a search product in China.”
The project has caused internal tensions, according to one report in Tech Times. The report claimed 1,400 employees signed an internal letter questioning the project.
Researcher Jack Poulson shared his resignation letter with The Intercept, which published it earlier this month.
“I view our intent to capitulate to censorship and surveillance demands in exchange for access to the Chinese market as a forfeiture of our values and governmental negotiating position across the globe,” he wrote.
“There is an all-too-real possibility that other nations will attempt to leverage our actions in China in order to demand our compliance with their security demands,” he added.
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