The Intercept has a long story up today explaining Google’s internal crackdown on employees who have criticized the company’s work on a search engine code-named Dragonfly that Google hopes to use in China.
Briefly: An engineer at Google put together a memo detailing and criticizing how Dragonfly would track individual users by their phone number and share that information with Chinese authorities. That memo was shared to an internal messaging list for Google employees with ethical concerns about the company. There’s a contingent of Googlers who are angry that the company seems to be gearing up to enter the Chinese market, censoring results for searches the Chinese government deems controversial, such as information about the Tiananmen Square massacre, as well as monitoring searches by individual Chinese citizens and feeding that information back to Chinese authorities. The memo claims that significant amounts of work have been done in secret for at least a year, even while Google has publicly claimed to just be in the exploratory phases of entering China. (Google has previously been in China, but backed out in 2010 after repeated clashes with Chinese authorities. It’s seemingly decided that it’s time to make nice once again.)
The memo being passed around did not make the higher-ups at Google happy. It was quickly erased from the messaging system, and Google’s internal security team sprang into action to make sure employees didn’t get more copies out. Per the Intercept:
Subsequently, 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.
Google’s internal security team, like all big tech firms, is big and beefy. It has former FBI, police, and military members on staff, and has recently begun monitoring employee communications much more closely. News of the memo about Dragonfly still made its way to the Intercept last week, which will likely only ratchet up the amount of scrutiny Google puts its own employees under.
Dissatisfied Googlers had a victory of sorts earlier this summer when Google announced that it would cease work on Project Maven, a contract with the U.S. military to use AI image-recognition software to help military drones. But that work cost Google somewhere between $9 million and $250 million in revenue. Google’s gross revenue in 2017 was $110 billion, meaning that even the highest estimate of the money lost due to giving up Project Maven would have been pocket change for the company.
In contrast, the amount of money at stake if Google could successfully reenter the Chinese market, with 1.4 billion potential users and a rapidly growing middle class, is tremendous. And Google’s internal security team seems ready to ramp up efforts to ensure that internal dissent about moving into China remains internal.