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EFF issues Google Desktop warning

Configure it carefully, or forget it

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Google has released a revamped version of its desktop search tool which introduces the ability to search the contents of one computer from another. Previous versions of the tool indexed files on user's PCs, but using the optional "Search Across Computers" facility in Google Desktop 3 temporarily stores text copies of searchable items on Google's own servers for up to 30 days.

Search Across Computers makes a range of files - including web histories, Microsoft Word documents, Excel spreadsheets, power point presentations as well as PDF files and text files in the My Documents folder - searchable from other computers. The contents of secure web pages are excluded from the list. Users would log on using their Google password can find data on files they've worked on regardless of which PC they used to produce them. Users can also exclude certain file types or locations from indexing.

Even so, privacy activists such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) have said the feature "greatly increases the risk to consumer privacy". It describes the facility as a gift to government snoops and a convenient "one-stop-shop for hackers" who've obtained a user's Google password. Users should avoid using Google Desktop 3, it advises.

Google argues that the growing use of multiple computers by users makes the feature useful. "Too many people are working across multiple computers now," Google vice president Marissa Mayer told USA Today. "This makes their lives easier."

In fairness, Google does acknowledge that the tool involves a trade off between functionality and security. That's a compromise Windows users have been stuck with for years, you might think. But even before the search engine behemoth was subpoenaed for search information by the Department of Justice, Google's latest desktop revamp would have raised eyebrows. The EFF, for one, is adamant users shouldn't trust Google with the contents of their personal computers.

"Unless you configure Google Desktop very carefully, and few people will, Google will have copies of your tax returns, love letters, business records, financial and medical files, and whatever other text-based documents the desktop software can index," EFF Staff Attorney Kevin Bankston said. "The government could then demand these personal files with only a subpoena rather than the search warrant it would need to seize the same things from your home or business, and in many cases you wouldn't even be notified in time to challenge it." ®

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