It’s Time to Take Back Your Data from Google and Facebook’s Server Farms

December 12, 2018

Project Dragonfly is revealing the depths to which tech giants will sink for financial gain

To safeguard our privacy, we need a decentralised internet where personal data is no longer stored on massive servers owned by a handful of corporations.

In April 2004, the Chinese journalist Shi Tao revealed an order from the Communist Party to censor coverage of the 15th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre. Journalists were instructed to “direct public opinion” and uphold party doctrine in their reporting. Hoping to inform others of the censorship, Tao shared notes he had taken on the document with a New York website.

His mistake was sending them from his Yahoo email account.

A year later, Tao was serving the first of a 10-year prison sentence for revealing “state secrets”. The government’s investigation, journalists discovered in 2005, was aided and abetted by Yahoo, which shared Tao’s personal data with Chinese authorities.

Yahoo was lambasted for its role in Tao’s arrest. Among the most pointed criticism was a tongue-lashing its chief executive faced in Congress, where the chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs said “Much of this testimony reveals that while technologically and financially you are giants, morally you are pygmies.”

We hoped that Sundar Pichai would face similar treatment on Tuesday when he sat in the Congressional hot seat, a first time for the 20-year-old, once-beloved tech company. Unfortunately lawmakers failed to hone in Google’s evasiveness on their China plans.

The Google CEO testified before the House Judiciary committee on myriad issues with the tech giant, and chief among them was the company’s secret project to build a search engine for China capable of being used by the government to expand internet surveillance over a seventh of the world’s population.

Codenamed Project Dragonfly, the search engine would come with a bevy of features attractive to any autocracy: Specific keywords like “human rights” could be blocked, searches would be linked to personal phone numbers, data servers located in China would be open to inspection at any time. Dragonfly would even allow the government to change weather and air pollution data to downplay the toxicity in its cities.

There would be no requirement to notify users of how their data is being used or by whom, nor any barrier to Google handing over personal data when requested, as Yahoo did more than a decade ago. In explaining the company’s motives, Pichai said Google had to explore China “given how important the market is and how many users there are”.

These tech companies have gone on long enough. Projects like Dragonfly are dangerous because of Google’s business model: offer a compelling product and amass personal data on the hundreds of millions who flock to use it. Store that data and then monetize it with advertisers.

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