Only a month after announcing it had discontinued development of a search engine for China, and that it does little business there, Google is under scrutiny again for partnering with telecom manufacturer Huawei – which is tightly associated with the communist government – to develop one of those smart speakers that listen to you while you are at home.
The intention was for Huawei to market the speaker outside of China, including in the United States, according to a report from the tech website The Information. The device would use Google’s popular Assistant technology for smart speakers. The report said the ties between the companies were “even closer than previously understood.”
Republican Sens. Tom Cotton (Ark.), Josh Hawley (Mo.), and Marco Rubio (Fla.) co-authored a letter sent Wednesday to Google CEO Sundar Pichai that sought answers about the tech giants’ collaboration on the project. The Trump administration has blacklisted Huawei from the U.S. market as part of its trade war with China, and the government is banned from purchasing equipment or services from the company that are “used to route or view data,” according to The Verge.
According to The Information, Google halted its work on the speaker in May, after the president curbed Huawei’s operations in the U.S.
“These devices can enable untrustworthy companies to listen in on Americans’ conversations,” the senators wrote to Pichai. “Your attempts three weeks ago to downplay your involvement in China, plus new revelations about your close relationship with Huawei, raise serious questions.”
In 2012, Huawei and another Chinese tech company, ZTE, were determined by the House Intelligence Committee to present a national security risk to the U.S. A chief concern was the companies’ willingness and likely intent to build entry points into routers and equipment sold in the U.S., that could give the Chinese government and business access to sensitive information. A Justice Department indictment in January detailed one example of theft, in which Huawei leadership in China directed employees working with American telecommunications company T-Mobile to steal its technology.
“Find another vendor if you care about your intellectual property; if you care about your consumers’ privacy; and you care about the national security of the United States of America,” said then-Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers to 60 Minutes in 2012.
The inquiry by Cotton, Hawley and Rubio shows those concerns haven’t abated in the last seven years.
“Huawei poses serious concerns about national security,” they wrote. “The oppressive Chinese Communist Party exercises enormous influence over the company. Huawei has even admitted that it hosts a branch of the party within the company itself. To what extent did you consider the national security implications of helping Huawei?”
News of the partnership on the speaker project followed the revelation last month that Google Home, the company’s own smart speaker product, records users’ private conversations without their consent or knowledge. A Dutch media outlet, VRT, reported that even when the speaker isn’t activated by its “wake word” (which is “Hey Google”), it is listening anyway.
“Recordings found by VRT contain startling content: Couples’ quarrels that may have potentially resulted in domestic violence, explicit conversations in the bedroom, men searching for pornography, confidential business calls, and talks with children,” USA Today reported. “The recordings are then sent to Google subcontractors, who review them later to aid Google in understanding how different languages are spoken.”
Needless to say, helping a government that doesn’t respect privacy rights to eavesdrop on its citizens is probably worse, or at least as bad, as helping them collect data on them through Internet search technology.
The senators cited other troubling examples of Google’s cooperation with Huawei and the Chinese government. They cited the March testimony of a U.S. Marine general who said Google’s work there provides a “direct benefit to the Chinese military.” They also mentioned two separate efforts in recent years to develop search engines that would censor results for political (and probably oppressive) purposes. And they cited an artificial intelligence center in Beijing with which Google intends “to entrench your relationship with companies controlled by the Chinese Communist Party at a time when that regime is using artificial intelligence to oppress racial and religious minorities.”
“Given this background,” they wrote to Pichai, “it is hard to interpret your decision to help Huawei place listening devices into millions of American homes as anything other than putting profits before country.”
The inquiry follows Pichai’s own skepticism-worthy testimony before Congress in December, in which he clearly misled (if not outright lied) that Google doesn’t “manually intervene” in search results that are often prejudiced in favor of liberal sources and against conservative ones. He also said Google had “no plans” to launch the Project Dragonfly search engine, while claiming the company only worked on it “internally” and not “in China.” But he never denied it was under development, and the company never clearly stated it was dead until last month.
Obviously being vague is part of the deception strategy of Google when it comes to its partnerships with oppressive regimes. Company officials have trouble with the truth when it comes to censoring U.S. citizens, much less how it plans to help the ChiComs censor their people.
As much as China cannot be trusted, it appears Google can be trusted even less.