Google has started encrypting searches made by people in China to prevent government censors from detecting sensitive search terms.
This means government monitors will be unable to detect when users search for sensitive terms – such “Tiananmen Square”; "Dalai Lama"; "Falun Gong"; "democracy"; "human rights"; or "free Tibet" – because the encryption makes them appear as indecipherable character strings.
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Google says the move is part of a global expansion of privacy technology, designed to thwart surveillance by government intelligence agencies, police and hackers.
Users in countries like the US and UK have had to option to encrypt searches since 2010, but now Google is starting to roll out encryption “by default” of all text used in searches around the world.
Referring to document leaks by whistleblower Edward Snowden, Google said in a statement: “The revelations of this past summer underscored our need to strengthen our networks."
The leaked documents indicated that the US National Security Agency (NSA) has had regular access to datacentres operated by Google and other internet companies.
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In China, the web browsing and social media habits of citizens are monitored by a system that attempts to stop people finding out about or sharing information on sensitive subjects, reports the BBC.
Google said encrypting search text was just one of many improvements it has made in recent months to help people maintain their privacy.
The internet firm reduced its presence in China in 2010 after it said it clashed with authorities over demands to censor searches or redirect people to government-approved sites.
As a result, Google has a share of only around 5% of internet searches carried out in China, with most people using the Chinese search engine Baidu, which complies with censorship rules.
Google, like Facebook and other technology firms, is struggling to restore user trust in the wake of the Snowden revelations.
Google has joined Facebook, Apple, Twitter, AOL, Microsoft and Yahoo to form an alliance called Reform Government Surveillance.
The group has written a letter to the US president and Congress, contending that current internet surveillance undermines freedom.
Google said it could not confirm a completion date for the worldwide roll-out of encrypted search text for all browsers.
But privacy advocates, who long have criticised Google, said its expanded use of encryption will do nothing to curb the company’s own tracking of users’ browsing habits, reports the Washington Post.
The paper quotes a spokesman for the Center for Digital Democracy as saying that, while it is a good move to encrypt as much as possible, Google is really just “grandstanding” with the move.
Google has come under fire for tracking website visits, emails and search queries to enable it to drive revenue through targeted advertising.
In January 2014 European Union (EU) justice commissioner Viviane Reding said firms should face hefty fines if they abused personal data.