As internal tensions continue over Google’s secretive Project Dragonfly, the initiative has reportedly been put on hold. According to the Intercept, the effort to relaunch a Google search product in China has “effectively ended” after members of the company’s privacy team raised complaints. A “data analysis system” Google was using to develop Dragonfly was not disclosed to the privacy team.
The system in question stems from 265.com, a popular Chinese web directory that Google purchased in 2008 and still owns. It also has a search function, but queries are redirected to Baidu, China’s most popular search engine. Before they’re sent to Baidu, however, they are also sent back to a Google database. Google was reportedly using this as a way to effectively build blacklists to make Dragonfly compliant with Chinese censorship regulations.
Google then apparently used this large set of queries, indicative of what Chinese users regularly search for, to “improve” its own results. From the Intercept:
The engineers used the sample queries from 265.com, for instance, to review lists of websites Chinese people would see if they typed the same word or phrase into Google. They then used a tool they called “BeaconTower” to check whether any websites in the Google search results would be blocked by China’s internet censorship system, known as the Great Firewall. Through this process, the engineers compiled a list of thousands of banned websites, which they integrated into the Dragonfly search platform so that it would purge links to websites prohibited in China, such as those of the online encyclopedia Wikipedia and British news broadcaster BBC.
Reviewing queries is usually subject to strict control within Google, but Google’s privacy team was not involved. After raising concerns, Dragonfly engineers have been prevented from analyzing 265.com queries, and that has brought the project to a standstill.
Last week, Google CEO Sundar Pichai said that Google had no immediate plans to launch Dragonfly in China, although his answers were vague enough to not rule out any future action.
It’s understandable why the privacy concerns would bring Dragonfly to a standstill. There are few things more sensitive and revealing about a user than their search queries, and anyone with authority to review them would probably be subject to heavy oversight. Project Dragonfly’s work, secret even to the people who are supposed to be safeguarding users (and subsequently, Google’s reputation), could be regarded as a serious breach of protocol, and a slippery slope.