Google has begun routinely encrypting Web searches conducted in China, posing a bold new challenge to that nation’s powerful system for censoring the Internet and tracking what individual users are viewing online.

The company says the move is part of a global expansion of privacy technology designed to thwart surveillance by government intelligence agencies, police and hackers who, with widely available tools, can view emails, search queries and video chats when that content is unprotected.

China’s Great Firewall, as its censorship system is known, has long intercepted searches for information it deemed politically sensitive. Google’s growing use of encryption there means that government monitors are unable to detect when users search for sensitive terms, such as “Dalai Lama” or “Tiananmen Square,” because the encryption makes them appear as indecipherable strings of numbers and letters.

FOLLOWING SNOWDEN’S NSA LEAKS

China – and other nations, such as Saudi Arabia and Vietnam, that censor the Internet on a national level – will still have the option of blocking Google search services altogether. But governments will have more difficulty filtering content for specific search terms. They also will have more trouble identifying which people are searching for information on sensitive subjects, experts say.

The development is the latest – and perhaps most unexpected – consequence of Edward Snowden’s release last year of National Security Agency documents detailing the extent of government surveillance of the Internet. Google and other technology companies responded with major new investments in encryption worldwide.

Chinese officials did not respond to questions about Google’s decision to routinely encrypt searches there, but the move threatens to ratchet up long-standing tensions between the American tech powerhouse and the government of the world’s most populous nation.

ACCEPTING GREATFIRE.ORG’S CHALLENGE

“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. “It will be a huge headache for Chinese censorship authorities. We hope other companies will follow Google to make encryption by default.”

Alpha, who uses a pseudonym to evade Chinese authorities, noted that Google began encrypting searches in the country more than two months after GreatFire.org publicly challenged the company to do so in an opinion piece published by Britain’s Guardian in November.

That piece came in response to a speech by Google’s executive chairman, Eric Schmidt, in which he said, “We can end government censorship in a decade” through expanding encryption.