Thursday, February 09, 2006

trading your privacy for better desktop search

Since I’ve published my cool thing for the day, permit me a discussion of something not so cool: the new Google desktop.

A few weeks ago I saw v4 of the Google toolbar was Beta testing, and since I use the current version a dozen times a day I thought I would check it out. I didn’t install it because I was unable to determine from their toolbar privacy policy what information would be collected in exchange for new functionality.

Today Google announced v3 (Beta) of Desktop search. Desktop search is an application Microsoft should have provided in the first version of Windows. Instead, for many years we all suffered with poor document search capabilities until X1, Copernic and then Google Desktop search were launched. I use Copernic because I like how it handles mp3s, but Google is quite popular.

Earlier versions of Google Desktop kept all index information local (and private). V3 changes this dramatically in offering “Search Across Computers.” Search Across Computers creates an online copy of all your files for easier access – seemingly a great idea. But because Google is a business built on advertising, the price you pay for this feature is privacy.

From the revised Google privacy policy:
If you choose to enable Search Across Computers, Google will securely transmit copies of your indexed files to Google Desktop servers, in order to provide the feature. Google treats the contents of your indexed files as personal information, in accordance with the Google Privacy Policy
What do they do with that information? They aren’t specific beyond:
We may use personal information to provide the services you've requested, including services that display customized content and advertising
What if you don’t want them to store the contents of your browser history, browser cache and all of your documents? They explain here:
You can uninstall the Google Desktop software through the "Add or Remove Programs" Control Panel at any time. When you uninstall the software, you can choose to delete the Google Desktop index and its copies of all items. If you choose to delete this information the original files and applications remain unaffected.

If you cancel your Google Account or uninstall Google Desktop,the files indexed in the Search Across Computers feature will no longer be accessible through Google Desktop and may remain on our servers for up to 60 days before being deleted.

In Google’s defense, they do give users control over what is indexed initially, an important step in preserving privacy. However, even though I have nothing illegal on my computer I am not comfortable giving Google a persistent copy of all of my files to mine or possibly share with the Government or other 3rd parties if subpoenaed.

I doubt that I will be alone in this preference either. The initial news stories are sounding alarm bells:

The Feds own your data
Desktop 3 raises privacy concerns
Google unveils Desktop 3.0, Privacy Blowup 2.0

And, the Electronic Frontier Foundation has issued this alert:
Google copies your hard drive; Government smiles in anticipation

In some ways this may be similar to Gmail, Google's trade of free email for more advertising data about us all. We all worried at first (correctly) but then signed up for Gmail accounts anyway. I do think that this is more serious as I’m not sure that I will ever be comfortable with a business storing my files unencrypted and mining them for information. What do you think?


At 11:27 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Seems like a very convenient way to send all your data to Alberto Gonzales and the NSA. Does Google promise not to make any backup copies of your data?

At 8:38 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This feature would have some value if I were able to retrieve data from one of my computers that is currently offline, however this does not seem to be the case. So the marginal remaining value is not worth the privacy/security exposure. Hope that ordinary google desktop remains local and private.

At 6:43 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The "do no evil" thing is so 2004. Google is now in its bratty adolescent phase and is confident they'll manage our data better than we ever could. If they can make a few $s in the process even better given how many arrogant 20 somethings are underwater now.


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