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Do Google's search warrant police run IE6?

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Google's Redmondian Legal Dept?

Yes, Google employees use IE6 to test public web apps such as Docs, Sites, Gmail, Calendar, and Google search. As of today, these services officially support IE6, and Google runs regular tests to ensure this support. "Google engineers will use various browser versions to ensure that our services (like Google Web Search) still work well for users on these browsers," a company spokesman tells us.

But would cyber-attacks on the company's QA staff have provided access to valuable intellectual property? Are the engineers who are writing and handling code also doing QA? Are they doing both on the same machine - without, say, wrapping IE6 in some sort of virtualized sandbox?

You would think that one way or another, Google would separate the two tasks. And perhaps it does.

Google also says: "We have been upgrading employees to the latest version of Internet Explorer for some time, wherever possible. As you'd expect, a large number of employees use other browsers and browser versions."

Parsing this bit of Googlespeak isn't easy. "Other browsers"? Does that mean other than IE8? Or other than IE6? Does that "large number of employees" extend beyond QA engineers? Is it indicating that engineers across the organization - the people building its public services - also do ad hoc QA testing? Are we supposed to believe that QA isn't handled by a small, dedicated staff? Google did not respond to a request for clarification.

Some have pointed out that China - as a whole - still clings heavily to IE6. According to the latest numbers from Net Applications, IE6 accounts for half of all browsers used in the country. The assumption is that Google employees in China were using IE6 because it's a Chinese thing to do. But there's no guarantee that the December attacks hit Google's China office. Google merely said that the attacks originated from China - and even Eric Schmidt has backed away from that statement.

According to the IDG News Service, the attacks cracked a "system" used to "help Google comply with search warrants by providing data on Google users." As an anonymous Googler told IDG: "Right before Christmas, it was, 'Holy s***, this malware is accessing the internal intercept [systems].'" Presumably, such a system would be accessed from the home office in Mountain View. Then again, maybe not. Perhaps it could be accessed from anywhere.

Is this a physical system? Or is it a service that's potentially accessible from any machine inside the company? Either way, you'd think this system would only be available to the company's legal department. Surely, Google's legal department is not doing QA testing with IE6. Surely.

Whatever the case, if outside hackers are cracking Google's system for complying with search warrants - a system that taps end-user data - it only enhances fears that Google is collecting far too much information about the world's web servers. Google likes to say it cares about privacy and security. But it only takes a single hack - or a disgruntled employee - to put paid to such claims.

If we assume IDG is correct about the search-warranty system - and, well, even if we don't - one question remains. Is it possible that Google - like Orange UK - is still running internal applications that require IE6? No, you say? We asked Google if was running IE6-specific browser applications inside the company. "This is the subject of an ongoing investigation," the company says, "and we can't comment on the details." ®

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