Web search powerhouse Google has acknowledged—and patched—a security vulnerability in its desktop search utility that opens the doors for man-in-the-middle data leak attacks.
The Google fix was issued after a pair of Rice University graduate students discovered that two different attack scenarios could be used to exploit the Google Desktop vulnerability.
The students, Seth J. Fogarty and Seth Nielson, made the discoveries during a security audit of the search tool. The audit was part of a final project in the students Computer Systems Security course.
Google, through a spokesman, confirmed the students findings. "We were made aware of this vulnerability with the Google Desktop Search software and have since fixed the problem so that all current and future users are secure," the spokesman said.
Google is pushing out the fix with the tools auto-update mechanism.
Fogarty and Nielson worked closely with Google since November to patch the hole before releasing details (PDF file) on the Internet.
According to the research students, the flaw was found in the way Google Desktop integrates local search results into Web searches performed at the Google.com site.
It could allow an attacker to include a Java applet in a Web page and set it up to appear to the user as a normal part of the page. The researchers said the applet also could make certain network connections trick the Google Desktop into integrating its local search results, even though the applet never actually connects to Google.
"The applet can then read these integrated results and transmit them back to the attackers Web server," students Fogarty and Nielson said. "Furthermore, in cases where the users computer network is subject to man-in-the-middle attacks, including most 802.11 wireless networks, particularly when used in public locations, the user need not explicitly visit the attackers Web page."
The attacker also could tamper with the network connections being made by the users Web browser and could inject the attack into any other Web page.
Desktop search has emerged as one of the industrys hottest sectors with Google, Microsoft, Yahoo, America Online, Ask Jeeves and several startups all jostling for market share.
However, experts have warned that the tools are not secure enough to be considered in the enterprise.
Researchers at Gartner have cautioned businesses against supporting the use of Google Desktop Search because of security and privacy concerns. "[It is] not the proper search tool for businesses right now," Gartner said in a report.
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