Dont Expect Privacy on the Web

By Larry Seltzer  |  Posted 2004-08-30 Print this article Print

Opinion: Whether they realize it or not, many people leave sensitive information out in plain view on Web sites. But sooner or later, a Google search will dig it up.

Theres always more stuff to find on Google. And like all programs, if you actually read the manual, you can do things you didnt even imagine. A couple of Google features have been sparking interest lately on security mailing lists. Both of the features rely on users leaving sensitive information out where Google can find it. Once Google knows about it, you can use advanced search features to dig up the information. Its issues such as these that remind me that the weakest security link is usually the one between the users ears.

The first one I saw is the numerical-range search feature. You can search for numbers between a low and high value. For example, a search for "100..199 Madison Ave." will find any instance between "100 Madison Ave." and "199 Madison Ave.," including "156 Madison Ave."

This being the Internet, the next logical step was to search for credit card numbers. Try this one, for "Visa 4366000000000000..4366999999999999". But dont go rushing off to just yet to rip off the poor schnook in the Google entry. A lot of the numbers you find in entries like this are fake—test data for software developers, for instance. But Im sure some of them are real, too. Somebody was careless with that data.

But the other feature is my favorite. You can search for file by file type, meaning file extension. Want to search for all Adobe Acrobat files containing the phrase "foreign car repair"? Try this link: "foreign car repair" filetype:PDF". Thats about 78 hits there!

Google actually can search 12 non-HTML formats including Microsoft Office, PostScript, Corel WordPerfect, Lotus 1-2-3 and, as we have seen, PDF. And you can mess with the query a little to search simply for a file of a particular type, e.g. "QDF filetype:QDF". Yes, that will show you Quicken data files that users have helpfully put up on the Web. The vast majority of these appear to be sample files for books and such, but I havent looked at all of them. Id bet there are some real ones.

Next Page: It gets worse.

Larry Seltzer has been writing software for and English about computers ever since—,much to his own amazement—,he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 1983.

He was one of the authors of NPL and NPL-R, fourth-generation languages for microcomputers by the now-defunct DeskTop Software Corporation. (Larry is sad to find absolutely no hits on any of these +products on Google.) His work at Desktop Software included programming the UCSD p-System, a virtual machine-based operating system with portable binaries that pre-dated Java by more than 10 years.

For several years, he wrote corporate software for Mathematica Policy Research (they're still in business!) and Chase Econometrics (not so lucky) before being forcibly thrown into the consulting market. He bummed around the Philadelphia consulting and contract-programming scenes for a year or two before taking a job at NSTL (National Software Testing Labs) developing product tests and managing contract testing for the computer industry, governments and publication.

In 1991 Larry moved to Massachusetts to become Technical Director of PC Week Labs (now eWeek Labs). He moved within Ziff Davis to New York in 1994 to run testing at Windows Sources. In 1995, he became Technical Director for Internet product testing at PC Magazine and stayed there till 1998.

Since then, he has been writing for numerous other publications, including Fortune Small Business, Windows 2000 Magazine (now Windows and .NET Magazine), ZDNet and Sam Whitmore's Media Survey.

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