Google Desktop Search 3 - A bridge too far

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Google recently released the first version 3 public beta of its extremely popular desktop search program “Google Desktop Search” to a curious mixture of praise and legitimate privacy concerns.

Google recently released the first version 3 public beta of its extremely popular desktop search program “Google Desktop Search” to a curious mixture of praise and legitimate privacy concerns.

A new feature called Search Across Computers (SAC) in Google Desktop Search 3 has fueled this anxiety. The word going around in a number of security groups is that SAC poses privacy risks and should not be used. We agree with the privacy concerns but feel that the coverage is making people unnecessarily wary of Google Desktop Search entirely.

The main point to keep in mind in all of these discussions is that the SAC feature is NOT turned on by default. Unless you explicitly enable SAC during the installation of Google Desktop 3 Beta by checking the “Search my documents and viewed web pages across all my computers” checkbox, then you have nothing to worry about.

You can choose to use GDS v3 and as long as you don’t choose that option your index isn’t shared on the Google servers.


About ‘Search Across Computers’

According to Google, SAC is an advanced feature designed for people who regularly use multiple computers. It helps users easily access information from all of their computers, so they don’t need to remember where all of their documents are organized or filed.

Once the SAC function is enabled, text copies of documents and Web history are automatically transferred to the other computer that has Google Desktop installed and is authenticated with the same Google account.

When the user searches on one computer for information, the second computer is automatically searched. This makes searching the index of a desktop PC at work while traveling around the world with a notebook a distinct possibility, but not one without issues.

In order for such a system to work, common sense (and the Google Desktop Features Summary) tells us that your index must first be uploaded to a Google server.

Here lies the crux of the privacy issue. As soon as your computer’s private contents are stored outside of your own computing environment, it is no longer totally private or within your control, no matter how secure the setup is.

The SAC index is a subset of the full Google Desktop index. It automatically excludes any password-protected files and secure web pages, like those containing bank account information. You can also choose to make both documents and Web history searchable, or just one or the other.

According to Google, the SAC index is encrypted while in transit and in storage on the Google server, where it resides for as long as 60 days before automatic deletion.

Excluding files and folders from the SAC index is also a highly recommended feature to avoid uploading any sensitive information to Google servers, but this must be done before the index is created. Creating the index is simply a matter of selecting the SAC feature from the Preferences.

Once items are part of the index, they are permanently there unless you manually delete them from Google’s server. Deleting the whole index from the server is also made possible through the “Clear My Files From Google” button.

Keep in mind that your document index will also be on any computers you have used to search between computers. To remove that stored index, you will need to uninstall Google Desktop and click “No” when you’re asked if you want to save the indexes.

In a recent statement on their website, the Electronic Frontier Foundation warned consumers not to use the new SAC feature in Google Desktop 3. They said it will make the user’s personal data “more vulnerable to subpoenas from the government and possibly private litigants, while providing a convenient one-stop-shop for hackers who’ve obtained a user’s Google password”.

This new threat comes hot on the heels of Google’s defiance of a recent Justice Department request to obtain random Web search records (a request that was accepted by competing companies Microsoft, Yahoo and AOL). Such a gesture could easily have instilled confidence in the Google user-base with the knowledge that their privacy was considered paramount. Instead users began to question how much personally identifiable information is stored about them, and be concerned with the ever-present possibility of government snooping.

Most users won’t want to trust anyone but themselves with the contents of their personal computers, so this is a legitimate concern.

If you’re thinking of enabling SAC on a work computer, you should check with your company’s IT department before doing so. Anything on your work computer is legally the property and responsibility of the company. By using SAC, employees may be transmitting confidential company documents outside existing security systems, and the potential for these documents to fall into the wrong hands is obviously increased.

While the SAC feature could be useful, most Google Desktop users will find it unnecessary. Since it is not enabled by default, any privacy risks are limited as you will have to knowingly enable it to potentially be at risk.

While anxiety about potential government subpoenas may be greatly exaggerated, much of the technology we use on the Internet today is not sufficiently covered by privacy laws. It definitely pays to be vigilant.

If you are thinking of enabling the SAC feature, our advice is simply to weigh up the possible benefits with the potential risks. If you understand how the feature works, there should be enough safety features to ensure that you have adequate control over your information.

Aside from the ‘SAC’ concerns you can choose to try the GDS v3 beta. V3 continues the good track record of Google’s desktop search product and while the SAC feature might be ‘A bridge too far’ don’t let that put you off trying it out.

We have extensive coverage of Google Desktop ( installation, use and nifty plug-ins ) in our popular Desktop Search Handbook.

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