Privacy and Mixed Search

By Larry Seltzer  |  Posted 2004-10-18 Print this article Print

Results"> Exhibit A for Google Desktop Search critics that its a real tinfoil-hat job: As explained in the GDS documentation, you can combine search results from the desktop and Google Web search service, and it happens automatically. Once you install GDS, if you do a Google Web search, there will be an entry in the results linking to your local results.

On the one hand, it seems obvious to me how this is being done. As I said before, because the installation warned me, GDS installed an Internet Explorer add-on. I suspect it is involved with this result. When it detects a Google search, it calls the local GDS engine to do a search and inserts its results.

I dont see any privacy problems with this because all of the local results stay local. David Burns, CEO of Copernic, disagrees. In a story in The Register, he states that this will result in Google knowing whats on your computer.

Yeah, its possible for Google to do this, in direct violation of its own privacy policy, but its not necessary for them to do so. Google officials have been cited elsewhere as saying that this arrangement of mixed results will get people to do more online Google searches, enhancing the companys ad-based online business, and this is plausible. Why would they want, instead, to lie to users in their privacy policy?

For some reason, the CEO of Google competitor Copernic sees things differently.

Lets review some of the provisions in the GDS Privacy Policy and Terms and Conditions. But first, lets note that GDS asks at install time whether you want to "help us improve Google Desktop Search by sending usage data and crash reports." Things such as search terms dont get sent otherwise.

The terms and conditions state that GDS will collect non-PII (personally identifiable information) such as the number of searches you perform. This will be sent to Google unless you opt out. It will be used to improve the program and will not be sent to any third party, the company says.

The privacy policy says, among other things, "Your computers content is not made accessible to Google or anyone else without your explicit permission." This wont stop some from assuming that big, evil Google Inc. will do so anyway, perhaps to finance its other evil ventures such as the free search service it provides.

Click here to read about Ask Jeeves recent acquisition of a desktop search company. Theres a unique application number in each instance of the program. Google gets this number back at install time, along with a code indicating success of installation. Its also sent when the program checks for a new version. All done to "make the software work better." Sounds to me like they want to know how many copies there are out there, but they dont know whos running them. As previously mentioned, it uses the central Google cookie. They may use this along with the information about other Google services (such as your news and Web searches). You can opt out of this anytime.

You can stop the system from indexing any particular file or files, or remove such files from the index after they have already been created.

On the other hand, Google seems to think theres something to hide with the desktop searches. When you do one of these mixed searches, the desktop results have a small "Hide" link next to them which, when clicked, causes the desktop results to disappear from the page. The documentation says, "You may want to hide a particular set of your personal Google Desktop Search results if someone is looking over your shoulder or if youre projecting to an audience."

And of course, you can always stop the mixed results from ever showing up, or stop specific files and folders from being indexed (go to Preferences on the GDS home page; go to the "Dont Search These Items" section). So, if youre actually concerned about search results showing up, there are things you can do.

Next page: Pursuing privacy on multiuser systems.

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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