The secret that surrounds the work was unheard of at Google. It was not unusual for new planned products to be closely monitored before launch. But this time it was different. The goal, named Dragonfly, was to create a search engine for China, censoring broad categories of information on human rights, democracy, and peaceful protests.
In February 2017, at one of the first Dragonfly group meetings at Google's headquarters in Mountain View, California, some of those present were stunned by what they had heard. Senior executives revealed that the research system's infrastructure would depend on a Chinese partner company with data centers in Beijing or Shanghai.
By locating essential elements of the research system on the Chinese mainland, search-and-find files would be easily accessible to the authoritarian Chinese government, which has extensive surveillance powers that it regularly deploys to target activists, journalists and political opponents. .
Yonatan Zunger, then 14 years old from Google and one of the company's leading engineers, was part of a small group who had been asked to work on Dragonfly. Present at some of the first meetings, he told project officials that the Chinese could be interrogated or detained when they discovered that they had used Google to search for information banned by the government. government.
Scott Beaumont, head of Google operations in China and one of Dragonfly's leading architects, did not see Zunger's concerns as important enough to warrant a change in direction, according to four people who worked on the project. Beaumont and other leaders then excluded members of the security and privacy team from any search engine meeting, said the four, before attempting to set aside a privacy protection plan to combat potential human rights abuses.
Zunger – who left his job at Google last year – is one of four people who spoke to The Intercept for this story. He is the first person directly involved in Dragonfly to save the project. The other three who spoke to The Intercept are still employed by Google and agreed to share information under the seal of anonymity because they were not allowed to talk to the media. Their accounts provide extraordinary information on how Google's managers have been working to remove critics of search engines censored by employees and reveal deep divisions within the group on the plane in China for almost two years.
Google executives said Dragonfly was so sensitive that they often verbally communicated about it and did not take written notes at high-level meetings to cut red tape, two sources said. Only a few hundred of Google's 88,000 employees have been informed of the censorship plan. Some engineers and other staff members aware of the project learned that they were at risk of losing their job if they dared to discuss it with colleagues who did not work on Dragonfly themselves.
"They [leadership] were determined to prevent leaks around Dragonfly from spreading in the company, "said a Google employee familiar with the project. "Their biggest fear was that the internal opposition is slowing down our operations."
In 2016, A handful of Google executives, including CEO Sundar Pichai and former research manager, John Giannandrea, have begun discussing a censored search engine project. But it was not until early 2017 that engineers were asked to develop a prototype of the platform. The search engine was designed to respect the strict censorship regime imposed by the ruling Communist Party in China, listing thousands of words and phrases, including "human rights," "student protest," and " Nobel prize". an app for Android and iOS devices, and would link people's search records to their personal cell phone number and track their location. (Giannandrea could not be reached for comment.)
The company managed to keep the plan secret for more than 18 months – until The Intercept unveiled it in August. Subsequently, a coalition of 14 prominent human rights groups, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, condemned the censored search engine, which could result in a direct Google contribution to Google. [becoming] complicit in violations of human rights. Employees opposed to censorship organized demonstrations within the company. Meanwhile, a bipartisan group of US senators has called Dragonfly "deeply troubling," and Vice President Mike Pence has asked Google to "stop it" immediately.
Google employees who worked on Dragonfly followed the furor and were not surprised by the reaction. They noted that many of the concerns raised by the human rights groups had already been expressed within the company prior to the publication of the plans, although they were dismissed by The direction.
Many of the concerns expressed by the human rights groups had already been expressed within the company and had been dismissed by management.
Each new product or service developed by Google must be reviewed by legal, privacy and security teams, who attempt to identify any potential issues prior to launch. But with Dragonfly, the normal procedure was not followed: the company's executives seemed to want to dilute the review of confidentiality, according to the four people who worked on the project.
In January 2017, Zunger, a veteran engineer for the company for 14 years, was responsible for producing the confidentiality report. However, it soon became clear that his job would not be easy. Beaumont, Google's top leader for China and Korea, opposed his work.
A British national, Beaumont started his career in 1994 as an analyst for an investment bank in England and then founded his own company called Refresh Mobile, which developed smartphone apps. He joined Google in 2009 as the company's director of partnerships in Europe, Asia and the Middle East. In 2013, Beaumont moved to China to run Google's operations. In his biography of LinkedIn, he described himself as a "technological optimist" who is concerned with "the value and responsible use of technology in many fields".
According to Zunger, Beaumont "wanted the review of confidentiality [of Dragonfly] to be pro forma and thought that he should fully rely on his vision of what the product should be. He did not believe that the security, confidentiality and legal teams should be able to challenge the decisions about his product and had an openly accusatory relationship with them – quite outside the Google standard. "
Three sources independently corroborated Zunger's story. Beaumont has not responded to several requests for comments and Google has declined to answer questions regarding this article.
At a meeting, Zunger recalled, Beaumont was informed of aspects of Dragonfly that Google's teams for privacy and security Provided for assess. He was told that the teams wanted to check whether the Chinese search system would be protected against state and non-state hackers, whether users in China would have control of their own data and if there could be any. has been any aspect of the system that could lead users to inadvertently disclose information about them.
"I do not know if I want you to ask these questions," Beaumont retorted, according to Zunger, who said the comment was "quite surprising for those in the room. "
Beaumont micromanaged the project and ensured that discussions on Dragonfly and access to documents on it were tightly controlled. "Different Dragonfly project teams have been actively separated from each other and have deterred all communication except through Scott's own team, even for technical reasons," Zunger said.
It was "very unusual" according to Zunger. Normally even for extremely confidential work within the company, he said, there would be "open and regular communication within a project, until the end to senior management. "
"The project, as it was then clarified, was not something I could sign on conscientiously."
With dragonfly, the opposite it was true. Restrictions around the project limited the ability to saycussion and seemed intended "to avoid internal objections, "said Zunger.Some members of the Dragonfly team learned that if they violated the strict rules of confidentiality, their contracts at Google would be terminated, according to three sources.
Despite the resistance, the privacy and security teams, consisting of six to eight people, continued their work.
Zunger and his colleagues have produced a privacy report highlighting problematic scenarios that may arise once the censored search engine is launched in China. The report, which contained more than a dozen pages, concluded that Google should operate in China as part of the authoritarian police and surveillance system of the ruling Communist Party. He added that, unlike Europe and North America, in China, it would be difficult, if not impossible, for Google to legally defend itself against government demands, to refuse to build systems specifically aimed at monitoring or even informing people of how their data can be used. used.
Zunger had planned to share the confidentiality report and review its findings in a meeting with the company's management, including CEO Sundar Pichai. But the meeting was postponed several times. When the meeting finally took place, end of June 2017, Mr. Zunger and Google 's security team members were not informed, so they missed it and did not want it to happen. did not attend the meeting. Zunger felt that it was a deliberate attempt to exclude them.
By this point, Zunger had already decided to quit Google, because of an employment offer that he had received of Humu, a Start business co-founded by Laszlo Bock, former human resources manager of Google, and Wayne Crosby, former director of engineering at Google. Had Zunger not received the offer join Humu when he did it, he m said, he would have likely to have finished Resigning in protest of Google on the dragonfly.
"The project, as it was stated at the time, was not a project I could consciously sign on, "he told The Intercept.
ZUnger does not know what happened to the privacy statement after he left Google. He said Google still has time to solve the problems that he and his colleagues identified, and he hopes that l & # 39; Company willend up with a dragonfly project that does something truly positive and valuable for the ordinary people of China. "
Google launched a search engine censored in China in 2006, but stopped operating the service in the country in 2010, saying he could no longer tolerate the Chinese government's efforts to limit freedom of expression, block websites and hack the Gmail accounts of activists. At that time, Google's co-founder, Sergey Brin, had advocated within the company to withdraw from China because he was uncomfortable with the level of censorship and oversight of the government. The "key question," said Brin, was to show that Google "opposed censorship and advocated the freedom of political dissent."
Dragonfly's revelations prompted questions as to whether Brin had radically reversed his views on censorship in China. But at a meeting with Google employees in August, Brin claimed that he knew nothing about Dragonfly until the Intercept revealed it.
According to three sources, Beaumont, the head of the company in China, reportedly told Dragonfly employees that Brin had met with senior Chinese government officials and told them he wanted to re-enter the Chinese market, while respecting local laws. .
However, Dragonfly's teams were informed that they were not allowed to discuss the issue directly with Brin or other members of Google's management team, including Pichai, co-founder Larry Page, and the General Counsel. , Kent Walker.
Two sources working on Dragonfly felt that Beaumont may have misinterpreted Brin's position in order to reassure Dragonfly employees that this effort was fully supported at the highest levels of the company, even though this was not possible. -be not the truth.
"What did Sergey know? I guess very little, "said a source," because I think Scott [Beaumont] it was given a lot of trouble to make sure that was the case. "
In Google, a deep ideological division has developed on Dragonfly. On the one hand, those who consider themselves aligned with Google's founding values, who advocate freedom, openness and democracy on the Internet. On the other hand, those who believe that the company must prioritize the growth of its business and its expansion into new markets, even if it means compromising on issues such as censorship and surveillance. Internet.
Pichai, who became Google's CEO in 2015, has clearly stated his position. He strongly supported Dragonfly and expressed his desire to see the company return to China and serve the people of the country.
In October, Pichai publicly defended the censored search engine project for the first time, although he tried to downplay the importance of the project, describing it as an "experiment" and stating that it was not not clear whether the company "could or not". "Finally launch it in China.
The staff working on Dragonfly was baffled by Pichai's comments. They were told to prepare the search engine for launch between January and April 2019, or earlier. Employees learned that the main obstacle to launch was the ongoing trade war between the United States and China, which had slowed down negotiations with government officials in Beijing, including the approval required by Google to roll out the platform in China. the country.
"What Pichai said [about Dragonfly being an experiment] was finally shit, "said a Google source familiar with the project. "This was executed with a 100% launch intent from the first day. He was just trying to get back into a delicate political situation. "
"What Pichai said was finally horse poop."
Tit launch plan was presented during a July meeting for employees working on Dragonfly. The company's research manager, Ben Gomes, asked engineers to prepare the search engine for be "out of the shelf and quickly deployed. "
Beaumont tell the employees in the same meeting this he was pleased with the changing situation for society in the country, according to a previously undisclosed transcript of his comments obtained by The Intercept.
"TWe witnessed a really positive change of tone towards Google during [Pichai’s] recent visits "to China, Beaumont said. "Part of our job in recent years has been to at restore that Google can be a trusted operator in China. And we have really seen a satisfactory recovery, relatively recently in the last two years. We are rather convinced that apart from commercial discussions, there is a positive consensus through the governmenternment entities to allow google to re-engage in China."
A few weeks later, detailed information about Dragonfly appeared in international newspapers and on the Internet, and the company was trying to contain the tide of internal and external protests. Beaumont was furious that information about the project was leaked, said two sources close to his thoughts, and told his colleagues that he feared the revelations could wipe out the prospect of launching the platform. by Google in the short term.
"[Beaumont’s] The end of the game was very simple. His ideal scenario was that most people discover this project the day of its launch, "said a Google source. "He wanted to make sure that there would be no possibility of internal or external resistance to Dragonfly, but he failed."