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Computer scientists have discovered a potentially serious flaw in Google's desktop search utility that could allow attackers to steal information.

Scientists at Rice University in Texas found a glitch in Google Desktop that could permit an attacker to search the contents of a PC from the internet, The New York Times reports. Dan Wallach, an assistant professor of computer science at Rice, and two graduate students, Seth Fogarty and Seth Nielson, say the risk is real, although an exploit would require a thorough understanding of the flaw.

Google's desktop search tool was launched as beta software in October. It allows users to scour their PC hard drives for files, folders and cached web pages in the same way that the Google internet search engine searches the web. In terms of user interface, the tool looks nearly identical to the Google.com page and will even insert relevant desktop search results and web-based searches.

The software has already faced some criticism over its ability to show users cached versions of supposedly-secret files and web pages, such as online bank and credit statements. Now, the Rice University team say the tool can actually allow attackers to search for files on the PCs of Google Desktop users without their knowledge.

According to the New York Times, the flaw is what computer scientists call a composition flaw, or a weakness that emerges when separate components interact. "When you put them together, out jumps a security flaw," Wallach told the newspaper. "These are subtle problems, and it takes a lot of experience to ferret out this kind of flaw."

The problem resides in the way that Google Desktop intercepts outgoing network connections from the user's computer. When Google Desktop registers that a search has been carried out on Google's internet engine, it inserts relevant results for a PC search in with website listings - although no information about the contents of the PC hard drive search is carried over the web. However, the researchers say it is possible to trick the Google desktop search program into inserting those results into other web pages where an attacker could read them.

To carry out such an attack, a user would first need to visit a website crafted by an attacker, where malicious code could be upload to allow for the attack to take place.

Google has corrected the problem in the current version of the software, which is available for free over the web and will update itself automatically in PCs where it has already been installed. Google also claims that there have been no reported exploits of the flaw.

© ENN

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