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Google excluded privacy team from Dragonfly China project, report says

An ex-Google engineer who worked on the censored search engine says his concerns were dismissed, according to The Intercept.

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Google headquarters in Mountain View, California

Stephen Shankland/CNET

As Google secretly developed a censored search engine for China, security and privacy teams were left out at key moments of the process, according to a report Thursday by The Intercept.

The project, called Dragonfly, would reportedly blacklist certain terms the Chinese government found unfavorable, as well as tie search queries to users' phone numbers, allowing the government to more easily track searches.

The person in charge of creating a privacy review for the Dragonfly project was an engineer named Yonatan Zunger, a 14-year Google veteran who left the company last year, according to The Intercept. When Zunger brought up human rights and privacy issues, Scott Beaumont, Google's head of operations in China, and other executives reportedly dismissed the concerns. Privacy and security teams were also reportedly excluded from meetings about the project.

Beaumont "did not feel that the security, privacy and legal teams should be able to question his product decisions, and maintained an openly adversarial relationship with them -- quite outside the Google norm," Zunger told the Intercept.

Neither Zunger nor Beaumont immediately responded to requests for comment.

Google said privacy reviews are "non-negotiable." 

"This is an exploratory project and no decision has been made about whether we could or would launch," a spokeswoman said in a statement. "As we've explored the project, many privacy and security engineers have been consulted, as they always are. For any product, final launch is contingent on a full, final privacy review but we've never gotten to that point in development. Privacy reviews at Google are non-negotiable and we never short circuit the process."

Not every member of Google's privacy teams agreed with The Intercept's report. "This story does not represent my experience working on security & privacy for Dragonfly, which were positive and thoughtful," tweeted Heather Adkins, director of security and privacy at Google. "I saw no sidelining whatsoever."

The search giant has been roiled in recent months by reports about Project Dragonfly, eight years after initially retreating from doing business in China. At that time, Google co-founder Sergey Brin, who grew up in the Soviet Union, cited the "totalitarianism" of Chinese policies.

A handful of employees have reportedly quit over the initiative and roughly 1,000 employees signed an open letter asking Google to be transparent about Dragonfly. The letter asked for the creation of a review process that would include rank-and-file employees, not just high-level executives. Earlier this week, more than 300 Google employees signed another letter, published jointly with the organization Amnesty International, demanding that Google CEO Sundar Pichai drop the project.

According to The Intercept, it's unclear how much Brin, one of the driving forces behind the retreat of Google's search engine in China in 2010, knew about Dragonfly.

"How much did Sergey know? I am guessing very little," an anonymous source told The Intercept, "because I think Scott [Beaumont] went to great lengths to ensure that was the case."

After The Intercept story was published, Liz Fong-Jones, a Google engineer and activist, brought up the idea of an employee strike and mass resignation in response to Dragonfly. She said she would match donations up to $100,000 for a "mutual support fund." She said she raised that amount in three hours.

Reached for comment, Fong-Jones said she has nothing more to announce at this time. 

The controversy around Dragonfly is likely to heat up more next week. Pichai is expected to be grilled about the project by lawmakers when he testifies before the House Judiciary Committee on Wednesday. 

First published Nov. 29, 12:27 p.m. PT. 
Update, 1:05 p.m. PT:
Adds comment from Google; at 2:58 p.m. PT: Adds a Google employee's comments about raising a "mutual support fund" for employees; and 3:22 p.m. PT: adds tweet from Google's director of security and privacy.

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