Google Dragonfly

Google has been forced to shut down a “data analysis system” it was using to develop a “censored search engine” for China after members of the company’s privacy team raised internal “complaints that it had been kept secret from them.”

The internal “rift” over the system has had massive “ramifications”, effectively ending work on the censored search engine, known as “Dragonfly”, according to two sources familiar with the plans. The incident represents a major “blow” to top Google executives, including CEO Sundar Pichai, who have over the last two years made the “China Project” one of their main priorities.

The dispute began in mid-August, when the “The Intercept” revealed that Google employees working on “Dragonfly” had been using a Beijing-based website to help develop “blacklists” for the censored search engine, which was designed to ”block” out broad categories of information related to “democracy, human rights, and peaceful protest,” in accordance with strict rules on “censorship” in China that are enforced by the country’s authoritarian “Communist Party” government.

The Beijing-based website, 265.com, is a Chinese-language web directory service that claims to be “China’s most used homepage.” Google purchased the site in 2008 from Cai Wensheng, a billionaire Chinese entrepreneur. 265.com provides its Chinese visitors with “news updates, information about financial markets, horoscopes, and advertisements for cheap flights and hotels.”  

It also has a function that allows people to “search” for websites, images, and videos. However, search queries entered on 265.com are redirected to “Baidu”, the most popular “search engine” in China and Google’s main “competitor” in the country. As The Intercept reported in August, it appears that Google has used 265.com as a “honey pot” for market research, storing information about Chinese users’ searches before sending them along to Baidu.

According to two Google sources, engineers working on “Dragonfly” obtained large datasets showing queries that Chinese people were entering into the 265.com search engine. At least one of the engineers obtained a key needed to access an “application programming interface,” or API, associated with 265.com, and used it to “harvest” search data from the site. Members of Google’s “privacy” team, however, were kept in the “dark” about the use of 265.com, a serious “breach” of company protocol.

The engineers used the data they pulled from 265.com to learn about the “kinds of things” that people located in mainland China routinely search for in Mandarin. This helped them to build a prototype of “Dragonfly”. The engineers used the sample queries from 265.com, for instance, to review “lists of websites” Chinese people would see if they typed the same “word or phrase” into Google.

They then used a tool they called “Beacon Tower” to check whether any websites in the Google search results would be “blocked” by China’s internet censorship system, known as the “Great Firewall.” Through this process, the engineers compiled a list of thousands of “banned” websites, which they “integrated” into the Dragonfly search platform so that it would “purge” links to websites “prohibited” in China, such as those of the online encyclopedia “Wikipedia” and British news broadcaster “BBC.” 

Under normal company procedure, “analysis” of people’s search queries is subject to tight “constraints” and should be reviewed by the company’s “privacy” staff, whose job is to “safeguard” user rights. But the privacy team only found out about the 265.com data access after “The Intercept” revealed it, and were “really pissed” according to one Google source.

Members of the privacy team “confronted” the executives responsible for managing “Dragonfly.” Following a series of discussions Google engineers were told that they were no longer “permitted” to continue using the 265.com ”data” to help develop “Dragonfly,” which has since had severe “consequences” for the project.

“The 265 data was integral to Dragonfly,” said one source. “Access to the data has been suspended now, which has stopped progress.” 

Teams working on “Dragonfly” have been told to use different datasets for their work. They are no longer gathering “search queries” from mainland China and are instead now studying “global Chinese” queries that are entered into Google from people living in countries such as the United States and Malaysia; those queries are “qualitatively” different from searches originating from “within” China, making it virtually impossible for the “Dragonfly” team to hone the “accuracy” of results.

Significantly, several groups of engineers have now been moved off of “Dragonfly” completely, and told to shift their “attention away from China” to instead work on projects related to “India, Indonesia, Russia, the Middle East and Brazil.” 

Records show that 265.com is still “hosted” on Google servers, but its physical address is listed under the name of the “Beijing Guxiang Information and Technology Co.,” which has an office space on the third floor of a tower building in northwest Beijing’s Haidian district. 265.com is operated as a Google “subsidiary”, but unlike most Google-owned websites, such as “YouTube and Google.com”, it is not blocked in China and can be freely “accessed” by people in the country using any standard internet browser.

The internal “dispute” at Google over the 265.com data access is not the first time important information related to “Dragonfly” has been withheld from the company’s privacy team. The Intercept reported that privacy and security employees working on the project had been “shut out” of key meetings and felt that senior executives had “sidelined” them.

Yonatan Zunger, a high-ranking veteran engineer who left Google.

Yonatan Zunger, formerly a 14-year veteran of Google and one of the leading engineers at the company, worked on “Dragonfly” for several months last year and said the project was shrouded in “extreme” secrecy and handled in a “highly unusual” way from the outset.

Scott Beaumont, Google’s leader in China and a key architect of the Dragonfly project, “did not feel that the security, privacy, and legal teams should be able to question his product decisions,” according to Zunger, “and maintained an openly adversarial relationship with them — quite outside the Google norm.”

Pichai, Google’s CEO, appeared before Congress, where he faced questions on “Dragonfly.” Pichai stated that “right now” there were no plans to launch the “search engine,” though refused to rule it out in the future.

Google had originally aimed to launch “Dragonfly” between January and April 2019. “Leaks” about the plan and the extraordinary “backlash” that ensued both internally and externally appear to have forced company executives to “shelve” it at least in the short term, sources familiar with the project said.

Google Dragonfly

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