Google Links Searches to Phone Numbers in Chinese Prototype

September 14, 2018, 11:34 PM UTC

A prototype search engine that Google is designing to meet the scrutiny of Chinese officials links users’ phone numbers to the searches they perform, according to The Intercept.

By connecting phone numbers and search queries, government censors could more easily connect Chinese citizens and residents with their online behavior. China already monitors traffic, blocks large segments of the broader Internet, and heavily censors Chinese microblogs and social networks.

Linking phone numbers with searches is only possible on Android phones in the current prototype.

This report adds to earlier news, also broken by The Intercept about the search engine, codenamed “Dragonfly,” which eliminates from results a number of terms and topics, like freedom and democracy. Google hasn’t confirmed any details about Dragonfly, which isn’t publicly available.

A Google spokesperson told Fortune, “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.”

The Intercept also said that Dragonfly would use official Chinese sources for air quality and weather reports, which aren’t always reliable. The U.S. Embassy in Beijing provides its own air-quality data online.

Buzzfeed News today reported on a list of seven Google employees who have left the company over their disagreements with the Dragonfly search engine, some of them quite senior. Over 1,700 Google employees have now signed onto a letter circulating internally calling on leadership to provide more information to employees to make “ethically informed decisions” about what they do at the company.

Google has worked on plans to re-enter the Chinese search engine market, among other businesses, which would require a product that complied with strict censorship laws and oversight. Establishing new offices and data centers in China would also require permission and substantial negotiation.

The company still runs a Chinese-language search engine based on Hong Kong that’s blocked in mainland China, and which allows access to otherwise prohibited results. Google ended its commercial operating in mainland China in 2010 for a variety of reasons, including alleged hacking of Gmail accounts of Chinese political activists and general censorship.