The censorship-enabled search engine prototype Google has been building for the China market has been accused of blacklisting search terms on behalf of the Chinese censorship department, as well as linking searches made to the user's phone number, a new report from The Intercept has revealed.
Google's search engine first exited China's government-controlled internet service in 2010, due to a number of factors that stemmed primarily from the government's censorship and concerns related to the possible weaponization of information with regards to some human rights activists.
However, due to the explosion of internet users since 2010 in mainland China, which now boasts the most internet users in the world, it has been looking for a way to re-engage the nation and capitalize on its search engine format. In order to achieve its aims and attempt to maintain its integrity, Google began building a search engine specifically for Chinese internet users in 2017.
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In building a search engine which would not be blocked by the country's censorship officials, Google have had to follow the nation's censorship laws. However, with this new report, it appears the government has been using it to spy on its citizens.
Activists have claimed Google was "directly contributing to or [becoming] complicit in human rights violations". The report showed Dragonfly banned terms such as "Nobel Prize" and "student protest". Also, with the vast majority of internet users in China on mobile, and with the prototype being developed for Android, it has allegedly made it easy for the government to link searches with mobile numbers, exposing another risk for human rights and political activists, as well as journalists.
Cynthia Wong, senior internet researcher with Human Rights Watch, commented: "This is very problematic from a privacy point of view, because it would allow far more detailed tracking and profiling of people's behavior.
"Linking searches to a phone number would make it much harder for people to avoid the kind of overreaching government surveillance that is pervasive in China," she added.
Google has so far declined to comment on the report.