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

Google's prototype may have been designed to track citizens.

Sean Hollister Senior Editor / Reviews
When his parents denied him a Super NES, he got mad. When they traded a prize Sega Genesis for a 2400 baud modem, he got even. Years of Internet shareware, eBay'd possessions and video game testing jobs after that, he joined Engadget. He helped found The Verge, and later served as Gizmodo's reviews editor. When he's not madly testing laptops, apps, virtual reality experiences, and whatever new gadget will supposedly change the world, he likes to kick back with some games, a good Nerf blaster, and a bottle of Tejava.
Sean Hollister
3 min read
Google headquarters in Mountain View, California

Google headquarters in Mountain View, California.

Stephen Shankland/CNET

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 be censored, 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.

Google declined to confirm or deny the report, but here's its current statement to CNET: "We've been investing for many years to help Chinese users, from developing Android, through mobile apps such as Google Translate and Files Go, and our developer tools. But our work on search has been exploratory, and we are not close to launching a search product in China."

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.

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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.

Though The Intercept's report also dives into how some employees are concerned about Google keeping controversial projects a secret, Google tells CNET that its teams need to be able to work on some projects confidentially, particularly when they're in early exploratory stages -- but generally shares as much as possible with employees and lets them give feedback on most products before they're released. 

You can find more alleged Dragonfly details, such as the number of employees allegedly working on the project, at The Intercept.

Update, 12:51 p.m. PT and 1:26 p.m. PT: With Google's comments.