“I am part of a growing movement in the tech industry advocating for more transparency, oversight and accountability for the systems we build.”
– Jack Poulson, former Google Scientist
Project Dragonfly is making its rounds on the internet yet again. Jack Poulson, a former Google scientist who quit Google in September 2018, over its plan to build a censored search engine in China, has written a letter to the U.S. senators revealing new details of this project. The letter lists several details of Google’s work on the Chinese search engine that had been reported but never officially confirmed by the company. He affirms that some company employees may have “actively subverted” an internal privacy review of the system.
Poulson was strictly opposed to the idea of Google supporting China’s censorship on subjects by blacklisting keywords such as human rights, democracy, peaceful protest, and religion in its search engine. In protest to this project more than 1,000 employees had signed an open letter asking the company to be transparent. Many employees, including Poulson, took the drastic step of resigning from the company altogether.
Now, in fear of Google’s role in violating human rights in China, Poulson has sent a letter to members of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation. The letter stated that there has been “a pattern of unethical and unaccountable decision making from company leadership” at Google. He has requested Keith Enright, Google’s chief privacy officer, to respond to concerns raised by 14 leading human rights groups, who said in late August that Dragonfly could result in Google “directly contributing to, or [becoming] complicit in, human rights violations.”
The letter highlights a major flaw in the process of developing the Chinese search platform. He says there was “a catastrophic failure of the internal privacy review process, which one of the reviewers characterized as [having been] actively subverted.”
Citing anonymous sources familiar to the project, the Intercept affirms that the “catastrophic failure” Poulson mentioned, relates to an internal dispute between Google employees- those who work on privacy issues and engineers who developed the censored search system. The privacy reviewers were led to believe that the code used for developing the engine did not involve user data.
After The Intercept exposed the project in early August, the privacy reviewers reviewed the code and felt that their colleagues working on Dragonfly had seriously and purposely misled them. The engine did involve user data and was designed to link users’ search queries to their personal phone number, track their internet movements, IP addresses, and information about the devices they use and the links they clicked on.
Poulson told the senators that he could “directly verify“ that a prototype of Dragonfly would allow a Chinese partner company to “search for a given user’s search queries based on their phone number.” The code incorporates an extensive censorship blacklist developed in accordance with the Chinese government. It censors words like the English term “human rights”, the Mandarin terms for ‘student protest’ and ‘Nobel prize’, and very large numbers of phrases involving ‘Xi Jinping’ and other members of the CCP. The engine is explicitly coded to ensure only Chinese government-approved air quality data would be returned in response to Chinese users’ search.
This incident takes us back to August 2018, when in an Open letter to Google CEO Sundar Pichai, the US Senator for Florida Marco Rubio led by a bipartisan group of senators, expressed his concerns over the project being “deeply troubling” and risks making “Google complicit in human rights abuses related to China’s rigorous censorship regime”.
If Google does go ahead with this project, other non-democratic nations can follow suit to demand customization of the search engine as per their rules, even if they may violate human rights. Citizens will have to think twice before leaving any internet footprint that could be traced by the government.
To gain deeper insights on this news, you can head over to The Intercept.