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Google security vulnerabilties stack up

With four in the last week, is Google the next security buffoon?

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Be that as it may, the week's events show that Google's security pros, while striving to do their part to live up to the search behemoth's goal of never being evil, leave plenty of room for others to be nefarious. And given the determination of today's cyber crooks, that's not easy to forgive.

"Anybody who's got the brains to build Google has the brains to build automated tools to make sure XSS errors never happen," says Rodney Thayer, a security researcher for Canola & Jones. Likewise for building tools that snuff out this week's other vulnerabilities.

We've been quite the security curmudgeons when it comes to lax coding at eBay, MySpace, Microsoft and other companies. By comparison, we tend to feel more comfortable with Google's ability to safely shepherd its users. That's largely because Google vulnerabilities - to our memories, anyway - seem farther and fewer between and because Google is so quick at containing the damage once flaws come to light.

MySpace and eBay, by contrast, have publicly struggled almost continuously under the weight of spam, scams and phishing attacks, many of them the result of policies that allow for the liberal use of powerful javascripts by users throughout the site. Consequently, it's a rare visit to eBay or MySpace that we aren't exposed to naked women or vile scat porn instead of the Bentley or chat group we were seeking. (It also helps that Google this week confirmed its acquisition of "sandbox" technology for secure browsing, demonstrating its commitment to make security a part of its core competency. eBay and MySpace, by contrast, this week added to the complexity of their already sprawling empires, the former with the baffling purchase of StumbleUpon and the latter with the purchase of PhotoBucket by News Corp.'s Fox Interactive Media, its parent company.

Microsoft, of course, is in a category all its own. The company has largely rehabilitated itself, now that it's proclaimed that security is Job No. 1. But it still finds it hard to live down its considerable catalog of past security sins, and that is likely to be the case for a long time.

But perhaps the comparisons are unfairly slanted in Google's favor. Google, as sleek as it is, remains a search engine and advertising company at its core, with a handful of digressions into maps, email and desktop software. It doesn't facilitate eBay's billions of dollars in user transactions, serve as an online clubhouse for the hundreds of millions of users as MySpace does, or integrate the number of services and applications that Microsoft does.

Google users should be equally vigilant, particularly when consuming more sophisticated Google services that go beyond Google's core search offerings. (Think products that combine the power of desktop programs with the agility of web applications or features that integrate servers for email with those for ads or other offerings.) Yes, Google has shown glimpses of super human strength when it comes to web-based maps, calendaring and email, and true, you won't hear the kind of bitter complaining about security from its users that have dogged other companies for years.

But the past week has done plenty to demonstrate Google is as fallible as any other earth dweller, particularly when it tries to rise above its search-engine origins and do more complicated things. We'd all do well to remember that for all its achievements, Google is forever susceptible to the cosmos's darker forces, not to mention its own hubris and carelessness. ®

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