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No packet left behind

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Five months after announcing its first Google-branded hot spots, covering San Francisco's Union Square and main public library, Google is enhancing the service. The ad giant briefly made a beta of a proxy server, Google Secure Access, available for limited download today before withdrawing the link.

The proxy is intended to protect 802.11 wireless users at Google hot spots from casual packet sniffing. But it also gives the ad broker the advantage of knowing what you're looking at, and exactly where you are geographically - a huge advantage to its core advertising business.

Unlike true anonymizing proxies, however, Google said it will retain certain information for research purposes. Anonymizing proxies, such as Anonymizer, offer rather more sophisticated protection and the reassurance that the proxy maintainer can't read the network traffic - at least in theory.

You could call it Google's "No Packet Left Behind" strategy. In addition to collecting your Google search queries and correlating them with your Google GMail e-mail account, the proxy gives Google access to all your internet traffic. (Google's spin doctors initially denied the company would correlate email and search queries, but this year, it opted GMail users in: account holders can now peruse a personal search history).

"All your Internet are belong to us", GMSV put it succinctly today. The site has a screengrab of the Secure Access download page, before it was withdrawn.

Google's explicit strategy is to develop "A Google that knows more about you", in the words of CEO Eric Schmidt. And the only way we can think of for Google get to know more about you than funnelling all your internet traffic through Google servers, is for Eric Schmidt himself to camp out in your bathroom 24 hours a day.

Given his busy schedule, and the fact there are so many of you, that's unlikely.

Google's Garden

It's the second proxy project that Google has unveiled this year. The first, Google Web Accelerator, was withdrawn after a few days. Many users discovered they could spoof other web forum users with the IE plug-in.

The Web Accelerator also generated some fascinating speculation that Google was attempting to create a "walled garden" or a net within the net. This would, some speculated, be a much more benign version of the walled gardens beloved by mobile carriers and cable ISPs, who block TCP/IP ports at their whim, disabling important internet services. Advocates suggested that GoogleNet could offer dramatic performance increases for ordinary internet users if rolled out on a large scale. The model is gaining favor for another reason: as a response to copyright concerns. PlayLouder MSP in the UK, and Mashboxx in the US will offer a "walled garden" which prohibits some user behavior in return for the assurance that music files can be freely exchanged.

We cast a sceptical eye over some of these discussions at the time, and Reg readers responded by pointing out the web forms a smaller part of your essential internet activity than Google might suppose: see Google can take the web, yawn readers.

"If they really want to sink their brand into this," wrote one reader, "Google will end up controlling a high end phone book and homework library."

Nevertheless, ordinary users care little for such abstractions as "the end to end principle" and which TCP/IP ports are open - while a network that permits users to share music freely - free from legal threats, spyware and restrictive DRM, and with the moral assurance that artists are being paid - has obvious attractions for the market. In this sense, Google is tipping its toes into how future computer networks might work - it certainly has the power to move the market with it.

Which leaves us in little doubt that Google deadly serious about network infrastructure, and is thinking not only beyond search but even beyond the web, too. ®

Related Link

Google Wi-Fi FAQ

Mobile application security vulnerability report

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