Report: Google suppressed an explosive memo about its Chinese search engine

Google headquarters in Mountain View, California.

Stephen Shankland/Techhnews

Every time we hear a new report about Google’s alleged censored search engine for China, it sounds more damning. Now, The Intercept is reporting that Google tried — and apparently, failed — to suppress a memo that may have revealed how that search engine could have allowed the Chinese government to track those citizens who used it.

According to the report, the so-called Dragonfly search engine would require Chinese citizens to log in to perform searches, track their physical location, and then share all of its data with a Chinese partner company that could presumably share it with the Chinese government. The company would reportedly have “unilateral access” to the data. That might also presumably include Chinese citizens’ phone numbers, as described in an earlier Intercept report. 

Plus, that Chinese company would reportedly be able to independently add new words to the blacklist of searches to censor, according to today’s report.

Here’s how Google is reportedly trying to suppress the memo:

Google human resources personnel emailed employees who were believed to have accessed or saved copies of the memo and ordered them to immediately delete it from their computers. Emails demanding deletion of the memo contained “pixel trackers” that notified human resource managers when their messages had been read, recipients determined.  

You may notice a lot of “may” and “could” and “report” in the paragraphs above, since Google still hasn’t confirmed that such a project even existed, much less how it might work — all Google has publicly said is that it’s “not close to launching a search product in China,” and it’s worth noting that reports suggest the search engine is currently a prototype.

At least 1,000 employees have protested the existence of such a project, according to The New York Times, and The Intercept and Buzzfeed report that some employees have resigned in protest. The protest and resignations echo ones around Google’s Project Maven drone work for the US Department of Defense.

Notably, The Intercept reports that the memo was written by a Google engineer who was asked to work on the Dragonfly project. It’s not clear if the employees who initially protested had reason to believe any of the alleged details above.

Google didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

You can find more details, like the number of employees allegedly working on the project, at The Intercept.

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