Search engine company Google has found itself under intense scrutiny over privacy concerns just days after releasing its new desktop search tool.
Google released a beta version of Desktop Search just last week with the typical media fanfare and analyst glee. The free downloadable tool allows users to search personal computer files at the same speed they “Google” the Web.
However, while Google said it designed the software with privacy in mind to ensure that the computer’s content is not accessible to Google or anyone else, some security experts this week are singing a different tune, claming the tool might leave a user’s personal information at risk if others share their computers.
Richard Smith, a privacy-and-security consultant in Cambridge, Massachusetts, told the E-Commerce Times that the new software has a good side and a darker alter ego.
“Google Desktop is a great organizer for finding information on your hard drive,” he said. “But it’s really a spying program. If it’s installed on your computer and somebody else starts poking around, they can learn a lot about you.”
Smith’s concern is that the search tool would allow such things as parents to sift through their children’s instant messages or co-workers to snoop through a colleague’s files or even that husbands could look for evidence of cheating wives.
“It’s not a big security risk in the sense that somehow an outsider could break into your computer and use this to get access to information,” Smith said. “It’s much more personal. People around you can kind of snoop around in ways that is not advantageous to you.”
Smith said Google’s new search tool, and others like it, are definitely inappropriate for use in Internet cafes or shared computers in libraries because it archives and caches away information.
“Google could improve the tool to make it less of a spying program,” Smith said. “They could change the defaults so it wouldn’t automatically index instant messaging and Web history.”
Marissa Mayer, director of consumer Web products at Google, told the E-Commerce Times that Desktop Search is just as secure as a user’s computer.
“If someone has access to your computer, then there are a lot of things they could do,” Mayer said. “Someone could go into your Quicken files and see all your bank records.”
Mayer said Google will be offering password protection in future versions of the software for people who are privacy sensitive. That would, however, cause the application to be more cumbersome to use in that the user would have to enter a password before each search.
“You can cause Google Desktop Search not to access https documents on the Web,” she added. “Password-protected pages, like your accounts on Amazon or your bank accounts, can’t be accessed if you turn off the indexing on the secure Web pages.”
At the end of the day, Mayer said Google has focused on privacy and security, but, for now, is limited by the privacy and security of a user’s machine.