Friday 1 February 2019

The secrecy surrounding the work was unheard of at Google. It was not unusual for planned new products to be closely guarded ahead of launch. But this time was different. The objective, code-named Dragonfly, was to build a search engine for China that would censor broad categories of information about human rights, democracy, and peaceful protest.

In February 2017, during one of the first group meetings about Dragonfly at Google’s Mountain View headquarters in California, some of those present were left stunned by what they heard. Senior executives disclosed that the search system’s infrastructure would be reliant upon a Chinese partner company with data centers likely in Beijing or Shanghai.

Locating core parts of the search system on the Chinese mainland meant that people’s search records would be easily accessible to China’s authoritarian government, which has broad surveillance powers that it routinely deploys to target activists, journalists, and political opponents.

Yonatan Zunger, then a 14-year veteran of Google and one of the leading engineers at the company, was among a small group who had been asked to work on Dragonfly. He was present at some of the early meetings and said he pointed out to executives managing the project that Chinese people could be at risk of interrogation or detention if they were found to have used Google to seek out information banned by the government.

Scott Beaumont, Google’s head of operations in China and one of the key architects of Dragonfly, did not view Zunger’s concerns as significant enough to merit a change of course, according to four people who worked on the project. Beaumont and other executives then shut out members of the company’s security and privacy team from key meetings about the search engine, the four people said, and tried to sideline a privacy review of the plan that sought to address potential human rights abuses.

Zunger — who left his position at Google last year — is one of the four people who spoke to The Intercept for this story. He is the first person with direct involvement in Dragonfly to go on the record about the project. The other three who spoke to The Intercept are still employed by Google and agreed to share information on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media. Their accounts provide extraordinary insight into how Google bosses worked to suppress employee criticism of the censored search engine and reveal deep fractures inside the company over the China plan dating back almost two years.

Google’s leadership considered Dragonfly so sensitive that they would often communicate only verbally about it and would not take written notes during high-level meetings to reduce the paper trail, two sources said. Only a few hundred of Google’s 88,000 workforce were briefed about the censorship plan. Some engineers and other staff who were informed about the project were told that they risked losing their jobs if they dared to discuss it with colleagues who were themselves not working on Dragonfly.

“They [leadership] were determined to prevent leaks about Dragonfly from spreading through the company,” said a current Google employee with knowledge of the project. “Their biggest fear was that internal opposition would slow our operations.”

UK's Far Right

Thursday 31 January 2019

The town of Banff on the northeastern coast of Scotland is a peaceful place, with just 4,000 residents and a picturesque bay that flows into the open sea. Fifty miles from the nearest big city, the air is fresh and the pace of life is slow. But for one young man, the town’s seaside location offered no contentment. He was stockpiling weapons and planning an act of terrorism.

Connor Ward lived in a gray, semi-detached apartment building a short walk from Banff’s marina, where dozens of small boats are docked and fishermen depart each day on a hunt for mackerel or sea trout. Inside his home, 25-year-old Ward was plugged into a different kind of world. He was reading neo-Nazi propaganda on the internet about an imminent race war.

Ward began preparing for the conflict. He purchased knives, swastika flags, knuckle-dusters, batons, a stun gun, and a cellphone signal jammer. He obtained deactivated bullets and scoured Google for information about how to reactivate them. From his Banff home, he purchased hundreds of steel ball bearings and researched bomb-making methods. He wrote a note addressed to Muslims that stated: “You will all soon suffer your demise.” Then he compiled a map showing the locations of mosques in the nearest city – Aberdeen – that he appeared intent on attacking.

In April, a judge sentenced Ward to life in prison after concluding that he had been planning a “catastrophic” terrorist attack and was “deeply committed to neo-Nazi ideology.” During his week-long trial in Edinburgh, Scotland’s capital city, it emerged that police had uncovered his plot by chance, after receiving a tip that he was trying to import weapons from the United States. Officers searched his home – and the home of his mother – and discovered his large armory, as well as a stash of 131 documents about Nazism, terrorism, and manufacturing explosives.

Ward is just one individual, but his actions reflect a broader trend. British authorities say they are currently facing a growing terrorist threat from right-wing extremists, whose numbers have increased in recent years. Rooted in the notion that white European people are facing extinction, the extremists’ ideas have gained currency following a spate of Islamist attacks in Europe and a refugee crisis that has seen millions of migrants travel to the continent from war-torn Afghanistan and Syria.

In Austria, Germany, Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, France, Sweden, Hungary, and the Netherlands, far-right ideas have also surged in popularity. The same is true in the United States, where Donald Trump’s presidency has energized white supremacists. Far-right politicians and activists have successfully tapped into concerns about economic uncertainty, unemployment, and globalization. But they have built most of their support base around the issues of immigration and terrorism.

In June 2016, an act of brutal violence highlighted the burgeoning danger in the United Kingdom. In broad daylight in a small village in the north of England, 52-year-old white supremacist Thomas Mair pulled out a homemade rifle and shot dead Jo Cox, a member of Parliament. Mair saw Cox as a “traitor” to white people due to her pro-immigration politics. Six months later, for the first time in U.K. history, a far-right group was banned as a terrorist organization, alongside the likes of Al Qaeda and Al Shabaab. Since then, the problem has continued to spiral.

British police say they have thwarted four far-right terrorist plots in the last year. In a speech in London in late February, the U.K.’s counter-terrorism police chief, Mark Rowley, cautioned that far-right groups were “reaching into our communities through sophisticated propaganda and subversive strategies, creating and exploiting vulnerabilities that can ultimately lead to acts of violence and terrorism.” Police were monitoring far-right extremists among a group of some 3,000 “subjects of interest,” Rowley said, adding: “The threat is considerable at this time.”