Sunday, February 12, 2006

Google Desktop Search -- EFF's Attorney, Kevin Bankston writes back.

Worried about the privacy concerns of using Google Desktop Searh, I wrote to Kevin Bankston of EFF.

Dear Kevin,

Thank you for raising your voice against Google's Desktop Search Feature. As a software engineer and professional search engine consultant I would like to draw your attention to the possible motives behind Google offering this service, based on my experience.

The new Desktop feature is not about offering users a great service. It's about Google being able to predict more efficiently what type of ads users would click on.

Predicting what ads to show to consumers
So for example, lets say Joe uses Google Desktop Search Feature and as a result has the contents of his hard drive(s) stored on Google's server. Google can then not only actively monitor what content Joe has on his computer but also what content Joe created or accessed recently. If Joe, for instance, recently created or downloaded five documents about "web hosting", Google could predict that wherever Joe goes online, "web hosting" ads would be the ones that Joe is most likely to click on. Predicting users demand in this way can help Google rake in billions at the cost of mine and your privacy.

On the other hand if a user creates documents about pregnancy, or mentions keywords about "pregnancy" in their recent documents, Google could guess that the user is most likely to click on "pregnancy" related ads.

Many people use the same password for multiple services
As a professional consultant I am surprised to see how many people use the same password for multiple services, which is a very insecure practice. Some of these passwords are shared with other people (such as a web site owner who may share his passwords with his webmaster).

People who follow such insecure practice may open their entire computers to prying eyes, thanks to Google Desktop Search.

I once again appreciate your efforts in raising awareness about this important issue.

In case you have any questions, please feel free to contact me via this email address.

Frank Mash

To my surprise, and delight, Kevin wrote me back the very same day:

Hi [Frank]--thanks for writing. We actually mentioned the ad-scanning
threat in our PR, so we're with you on that. And although it was not
in our PR, we also are concerned about people using a single account
for multiple services--not only as a single point of failure in
security terms, but because it means they can track your behavior
across all of their services in a personally identifiable way. So, it
looks like we're on the same page, and thanks for your words of


So if you still choose to use the Google Desktop Search 3, know what you are getting into and the applicable risks to you.

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