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Google’s search engine for China reportedly links searches with phone numbers

It will help the government pinpoint who searched what.


Christina Bonnington


Posted on Sep 19, 2018   Updated on May 21, 2021, 6:07 am CDT

Following news that Google is developing a censored search engine for China, more details about the product, codenamed Dragonfly, are beginning to circulate. In the latest report, it appears that Google is tying search results to individuals’ phone numbers—a move that will help the Chinese government better monitor its citizens.

The Dragonfly search engine will hide content prohibited by the Chinese government, including information about democracy, free speech, and political dissidents, the Intercept reports. The tool also censors blacklisted words including Mandarin translations of the phrases “student protest,” “human rights,” and “Nobel Prize.” It also doctors information about weather and air pollution, using data from a source in Beijing rather than other websites or organizations.

Dragonfly, which will be operated in partnership with a company on mainland China, will go further than just censoring what searches and search results appear in the browser. The prototype search engine, which runs on Android, does something that’s more concerning from a privacy standpoint. Dragonfly is tied to a user’s smartphone and thus their phone number, which gives Chinese authorities a means by which to track the search activity of their citizens.

“This is very problematic from a privacy point of view, because it would allow far more detailed tracking and profiling of people’s behavior,” Cynthia Wong, senior internet researcher with Human Rights Watch, told The Intercept. People found to be searching for banned words could find themselves being interrogated or held in detention.

Google hasn’t publicly commented on Dragonfly yet, but some Google employees are resigning over the company’s involvement in this project. (In an earlier statement, Google only said that it’s been helping Chinese users for many years with various tools, but its “work on search has been exploratory, and we are not close to launching a search product in China.”)

Last week, 16 House representatives wrote a letter to Google CEO Sundar Pichai about its involvement with this search engine. “We have a responsibility to ensure that American companies are not perpetuating human rights abuses abroad and to ensure that our regulatory and statutory systems are able to deal with changing business environments,” the letter stated.

Google hasn’t had a search engine presence in China since 2010.

H/T the Guardian

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*First Published: Sep 19, 2018, 5:45 pm CDT