“Disturbing plans” in China revealed by a former Google employee

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A Google ex employee warned about the company’s future plans in China, in a letter dedicated to American legislators

Jack Poulson, who had worked as a senior researcher on Google until his resignation last August, wrote a letter in which he mentioned that he was afraid of Google’s ambitions. In his letter, the specialist in ethical hacking argues that Google has been collaborating in the development of a Chinese product, whose codename is Dragonfly, and would help the Beijing authorities to censor and monitor the online activities of their citizens.

Google has said that its work in China to date has been only exploratory; Ben Gomes, Google’s head of search, declared for experts in ethical hacking earlier this week: “At this time everything we’ve done has been limited to exploration, but since we have no plans to launch anything, there’s not much I can say about it”.

A report published on a news portal last week mentioned that Google would have demanded that workers eliminate an internal memorandum discussing the plans. Google has not commented on the alleged pressure on its staff, but spokespersons of the company stated: “We have been investing for many years to help Chinese users, from the development of Android, through mobile apps like Google Translate and Files Go, and our tools for developers. We didn’t plan to launch any search tools in China”.

Poulson’s letter details several aspects of Google’s work that had been reported in the press but had never been officially confirmed by the company. This statement will be presented to the Senate Trade Committee, which will have a hearing on Wednesday in Washington DC.

The subject of the hearing is “examining the privacy guarantees of consumer data”. Google’s chief of privacy, Keith Enright, has been called to the audience, as are the representatives of AT&T, Apple, Twitter and Amazon.

The letter alleges that Google is working on:

  • An interface prototype designed to allow a Chinese company to query a particular user’s searches based on their phone number
  • An extensive black list of censorship developed in accordance with the demands of the Chinese government. Among other things, the list contained the English term for “human rights”, the Mandarin terms for “student protest” and “Nobel Prize”, and a large number of phrases involving Xi Jinping and other members of the Chinese Communist Party
  • Explicit codes to ensure that only the Chinese government will provide information on air quality in the Asian country

Poulson said the sum of these efforts amounted to a catastrophic failure of Google’s internal privacy policies, in addition to going against the guarantees made to the US trade regulator regarding data protection measures in their products.

According to specialists in ethical hacking from the International Institute of Cyber Security, the business relationship between the Chinese government and Google had already turned on the alarms; after the launch of the Google security key, the news raised about that the device manufacturer was a Chinese company that collaborates closely with the Government of the Asian country.