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Google Desktop 3: Convenience vs. Privacy

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Author: Brian Anderson
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Google Desktop 3:  Convenience vs. Privacy
February 24, 2006

As you may know, Google recently released an update to its desktop search product. It offers several different features which add both a convenience factor and privacy issues. I am going to be looking into these, seeing how they relate, and if the convenience is out weighted by the privacy issues. If you are using (or are considering using) Google Desktop's newest version I would highly suggest you take some time and read this article before you make the decision for yourself.

Before I get into this article I should take some time to tell you about myself. I am currently employed as an Information Security Officer at a small/medium size company. However, every job I do protects not only the personal information of almost everyone in the United States, but also helps to save countless lives every day. I am currently a Certified Information Systems Security Professional (CISSP), and I am presently working on several other security certifications. I have been in the IT field for over 10 years and heavily into the security of IT in varying forms for the last several years. With that said, understand my motto is "Just because I'm paranoid doesn't mean they aren't out to get me!" So this is why I say "Make the decision for yourself".


What is Google Desktop?

Because I assume you already know the basics of Google Desktop I am not going to go into big detail here, but I will give you a quick run down with an emphasis on the features that I am most concerned about. For a full list of features, please see the Google Desktop site.

Basically, Google Desktop allows you to search your computer just like you search the web at Google.com. Of course, in traditional software style, they have added many more features to entice you into installing this free software. They have added features like side bars that allow you to do everything from check the weather and your e-mail, to sharing information with friends, and even playing games. These are all nice features, but unfortunately some of these also have some privacy risks depending on what Google does with the information they collect on you. And they DO collect information on you (see their privacy policy). After all, you may ask yourself how does Google make money? Simple, they sell information. They generally sell it to advertisers who pay Google to place relevant ads on Google's web pages. It may or may not be harmful or an invasion of your privacy, but again, this is something you will have to read up on and make the decision for yourself.

It's one of Google Desktop's newest features that has me the most concerned. It is the "Search Across Computers" feature that has me not only concerned from a corporate information security perspective, but also as a personal privacy perspective. Let's take a closer look at this feature and see why I am so concerned.

Search Across Computers Feature

What exactly is "Search Across Computers"? It is a feature (that is by default turned off) that allows you to search and access files from multiple computers, such as your home computers and your work computers. Sounds pretty cool, and very convenient... Doesn't it? Well that's because it is! There have been many times that I have thought I had a certain file with me only to find out that I didn't have it on the system I was on. It would have been really nice to be able to search for the information I was looking for, and to bring up that file from where ever I was.

I think the convenience that Google Desktop 3 offers is very obvious. But hopefully you have been asking yourself one important question... "How does it work?" Well, by looking around the Google Desktop site you can find out. Once it indexes your computer, it copies your files; such as word documents, spreadsheets, PDFs, text files, and others; to Google's servers for up to 30 days. Please take a second and let that sink in... It copies your files to their servers! Those files could be anything from a shopping list, to your taxes, to your credit card information, to what ever you have stored on your computer.

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