Google have copped a lot of flack over their ambition to move their search product into China. Now it seems that they have stopped the development of this project after their privacy team got wind of how the Dragonfly team was developing their product.
As part of the development, unbeknown to their privacy team, Google were collecting data from a popular Chinese site, 265.com – a Chinese-language web directory service. Google had purchased this site in 2008 and used it to provide news updates, information about financial markets and ads. It also contains a web search function which directed the searches to Baidu (the most popular Chinese search engine).
Google would then analyse this data and search terms people used to learn about their interests and preferences. From this data Google were also able to obtain a list of thousands of banned websites, blocked by the Great Firewall of China. This analysis was then used to create a Dragonfly prototype.
While this was going on, the Google privacy team were kept in the dark. The privacy team ensure that tight constraints are kept on the use of people’s data and search results. It appears that Dragonfly management hid the existence of this dataset and how it was obtained from Google’s privacy team to avoid the usual data security and oversight normally performed at Google. The privacy team only learned of the Dragonfly data-mining process when The Intercept revealed it. After the reveal they were apparently “really pissed” and fired off a heap of complaints, not just to the executives managing Dragonfly. As a result the use of data from 265.com was banned, essentially killing off the development of Dragonfly.
“The 265 data was integral to Dragonfly,” said one source. “Access to the data has been suspended now, which has stopped progress.”
Instead, the Dragonfly team have had to scour non-Chinese sites for “global Chinese” queries which are different to the searches from within China. This has made it difficult for the Dragonfly team to fine tune the accuracy of their results. Now several engineers have actually been moved from Dragonfly, with the project now shelved according to The Intercept’s sources within Google.
Last week Google CEO, Sundar Pichai told US Congress that Google had no plans right now to launch the search engine into China. Although this does not rule out the possibility of moving into China eventually it seems that it won’t be any time soon, especially with the use of Dragonfly data already obtained.