Google’s secretive plans in China are attracting renewed scrutiny from privacy advocates.
The tech giant is said to be building a prototype version of a censored Chinese search engine that links users’ activity to their personal phone number, according to the Intercept.
In doing so, it would be able to comply with the Chinese government’s censorship requirements, increasing the chances that such a product would launch there in the future.
Recent reports have suggested Google plans to build a censored version of its search engine in China, as part of a project called ‘Dragonfly.’
The app would have to comply with China’s rigid censorship laws, which would mean restricting access to content that government officials consider unfavorable.
Search terms about human rights, democracy, religion and peaceful protests will be blocked from the app.
Linking searches with a user’s phone number would allow officials to easily track activity on the platform, potentially allowing them to target political activists, journalists and dissenters.
‘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.
‘Linking searches to a phone number would make it much harder for people to avoid the kind of overreaching government surveillance that is pervasive in China.’
Dragonfly is also designed to replace weather and air pollution data with information provided by an unnamed source in Beijing, the Intercept reported.
The search engine has already been ‘essentially hardcoded to force [Chinese-provided] data,’ the Intercept added.
It comes as Google faces mounting pressure from US lawmakers to disclose more information about its dealings in China.
A bipartisan group of 16 US lawmakers asked Google on Thursday if it would comply with China’s internet censorship and surveillance policies should it re-enter the search engine market there.
More than 1,000 Google employees, six U.S. senators and at least fourteen human rights groups have written to the company expressing concern about its China ambitions.
Since then, a list has been circulating inside the company detailing seven employees who say they quit their jobs at Google over a lack of transparency.
One of those employees includes Jack Poulson, a research scientists who had worked for Google for more than two years.
Poulson said he resigned because he felt the company was not honoring its commitment to human rights norms in designing the search app.
He told Reuters that executives would not specify to him where the company would draw the line on agreeing to Chinese demands.
‘Unfortunately, the virtually unanimous response over the course of three very vocal weeks of escalation was: “I don’t know either,”‘ Poulson said.
He was among a handful who resigned, he told the Intercept online publication, which first reported on his action.
Google declined to comment directly on the lawmakers’ letter or the resignations but said in a statement it had been ‘investing for many years to help Chinese users’ and described its ‘work on search’ for China as ‘exploratory’ and ‘not close to launching.’
Reuters reported last month that Google planned to seek government clearance to provide a version of its search engine in China that blocks some websites and search terms.
Programmers and engineers at the company have created several versions of an Android app, called ‘Maotai’ and ‘Longfei,’ one of which has been presented to the Chinese government.
Should it be approved by government officials, a final version could be launched as soon as the next six to nine months.
Members of the U.S. House of Representatives, including liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans, said in their letter on Thursday they had ‘serious concerns’ about the potential step.
The letter asked if Google would ‘ensure that individual Chinese citizens or foreigners living in China, including Americans, will not be surveilled or targeted through Google applications.’
Representative David Cicilline, a Democrat and signer of the letter, wrote on Twitter that ‘Google should not be helping China crack down on free speech and political dissent.’
The company could face questions about China when it testifies on privacy issues before a Senate panel on Sept. 26.
Google’s main search platform has been blocked in China since 2010, but it has been attempting to make new inroads into the world’s largest smartphone market by users.
Google’s re-entry is not guaranteed as China has stepped up scrutiny of business dealings involving U.S. tech firms including Facebook Inc and Apple Inc amid intensifying trade tensions between Beijing and Washington.