Privacy Experts Advice Against Google Desktop 3

    February 9, 2006

The Electronic Frontier Foundation, go-to guys for legal issues in Web 2.0, have recommended against using the latest version of Google Desktop.

The EFF says that if you use the “search across computers” feature (which, don’t worry, is double-super opt-in), your data is placed on Google’s servers, which makes it available for subpoena by government organizations (normally, such an invasion would require a search warrant).

From their website:

Google today announced a new “feature” of its Google Desktop software that greatly increases the risk to consumer privacy. If a consumer chooses to use it, the new “Search Across Computers” feature will store copies of the user’s Word documents, PDFs, spreadsheets and other text-based documents on Google’s own servers, to enable searching from any one of the user’s computers. EFF urges consumers not to use this feature, because it will make their personal data more vulnerable to subpoenas from the government and possibly private litigants, while providing a convenient one-stop-shop for hackers who’ve obtained a user’s Google password.

“Coming on the heels of serious consumer concern about government snooping into Google’s search logs, it’s shocking that Google expects its users to now trust it with the contents of their personal computers,” said EFF Staff Attorney Kevin Bankston. ” 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. Other litigants-your spouse, your business partners or rivals, whoever-could also try to cut out the middleman (you) and subpoena Google for your files.”

The privacy problem arises because the Electronic Communication Privacy Act of 1986, or ECPA, gives only limited privacy protection to emails and other files that are stored with online service providers-much less privacy than the legal protections for the same information when it’s on your computer at home. And even that lower level of legal protection could disappear if Google uses your data for marketing purposes. Google says it is not yet scanning the files it copies from your hard drive in order to serve targeted advertising, but it hasn’t ruled out the possibility, and Google’s current privacy policy appears to allow it.

While the EFF is right that Google’s latest features present new legal and privacy problems for users, you can see in the comments at Slashdot that there is a lot of FUD being spread around, since so many people do not understand the intricacies of the situation. Since it isn’t in the EFF’s interest to correct them, maybe Google could do a better job calming down users over these concerns? The Google blog moves too slow. If Scoble were a Googler, he’d already be on top of it.

Nathan Weinberg writes the popular InsideGoogle blog, offering the latest news and insights about Google and search engines.

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