MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif., March 13 (UPI) -- Google has started encrypting Web searches for people in China, to help them avoid online scrutiny by China's Great Firewall and other snooping agencies.
The development is seen as a reaction to Edward Snowden's revelations about the U.S. National Security Agency's surveillance of Web activity of a large swath of the Internet. While the encrypting service was available in countries like the U.S. and U.K. since 2010, it has been extended globally, including China, which has a well-documented censorship system that intercepts information considered politically sensitive.
"The revelations of this past summer underscored our need to strengthen our networks," said Google spokeswoman Nikki Christoff in a statement.
China, Saudi Arabia and Vietnam have strict online censorship policies and will have difficulty identifying which people are searching for information on sensitive subjects. Their only recourse could be to block Google's search services altogether.
Snowden's documents showed that the NSA had regular access to data centers operated by Google and many other web firms. Google and other technology companies responded to Snowden's revelations by strengthening their encryption techniques.
“No matter what the cause is, this will help Chinese netizens to access information they’ve never seen before,” said Percy Alpha, the co-founder of GreatFire.org, an activist group that monitors China’s Great Firewall.
Alpha, who uses a pseudonym to evade Chinese authorities, claims that Google started encrypting searches after his group, GreatFire.org, publicly challenged the company to do so in an opinion piece published by The Guardian.
Google has denied Alpha's claims and said the company started rolling out encrypted searches in February for unrelated reasons. Google did not confirm how long the global rollout will take.
Chinese authorities have not responded to Google's decision to encrypt searches, but it highly likely that the move will re-ignite animosities between China and Google. Google largely left the Chinese market in 2010 after refusing to comply with China's censorship demands, choosing to shift operations to Hong Kong.