Dragonfly: Google CEO Sundar Pichai’s China dilemma

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Published: December 1, 2018 2:20:03 PM

The reports of Dragonfly's launch have triggered a serious debate over the privacy of the users in China.

Dragonfly, Dragonfly details, Dragonfly launch, Dragonfly china, Google, Sundar Pichai, Dragonfly newsIt has been reported that Google is likely to launch Dragonfly in January 2019. (Reuters)

Not long ago, Google CEO Sundar Pichai had called a project on a censored version of its search engine — Dragonfly — for China an ‘experiment’ to find out what was possible for the country. But now it has been reported that Google is likely to launch Dragonfly in January 2019. The reports of Dragonfly’s launch have triggered a serious debate over the privacy of the users in China.

The Intercept has published a detailed report on how Google shut out privacy and security teams from the meetings on its secret search engine project for China.

In its report, The Intercept citing a senior executive claims that Dragonfly’s infrastructure would rely upon a Chinese company with data centres in Beijing or Shanghai. The is serious as, the report claims, locating the core infrastructure of the search engine in China will make it easy for Beijing to access users’ search records.

According to the report, former Google engineer Yonatan Zunger had told the executives managing the secret project that Chinese people could face interrogation or detention if they were found to have used Google to access information banned by Beijing.

However, Zunger’s concerns were brushed aside by Scott Beaumont who is the head of operations in China. After this, Beaumont stopped the officials of Google’s security and privacy team from participating in key meetings about Dragonfly. He also tried to bypass a privacy review of the plan that sought to address human rights abuses, the report said.

According to The Intercept, the discussion between top Google executives — including CEO Sundar Pichai and former search chief John Giannandrea — to build Dragonfly began two years ago in 2016. A year later, the engineers were put on the job to develop a prototype of the search engine.

The report claims that the search engine was designed to comply with the censorships imposed by China. It blacklisted thousands of words, phrases and terms such as human rights, student protest and Nobel Prize. “It was developed as an app for Android and iOS devices and would link people’s search records to their personal cell phone number and track their location,” the report said.

However, Google has dismissed these concerns about privacy. In a statement to Vanity fair, a Google spokesperson said: “For any product, final launch is contingent on a full, final privacy review, but we’ve never gotten to that point in development.” The spokesperson further said that “this (Dragonfly) is an exploratory project and no decision has been made about whether we could or would launch”.

Earlier this year, Pichai while referring to Dragonfly had said that he wanted to see what it would look like if Google were in China. However, the Google CEO said that he was unsure whether the search engine would be launched. “It’s very early, we don’t know whether we would do this in China but we felt like it was important for us to explore,” he had said.

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