While search giant Google works to reassure its users that the latest version of its Desktop Search application does not pose the security threat some privacy watchdogs have said it will, at least one of the companys enterprise partners has confirmed that it will continue to support the tool in its products.
In January, storage market leader EMC announced that it was adding Google Desktop Search to one of its Documentum business units ECM (enterprise content management) products.
EMC added the technology, which claims the ability to mine the data stored on a PCs hard drive much as Googles Web search indexes the Internet, in the name of offering its customers yet another avenue for querying corporate data as part of its ECI (Enterprise Content Integration) search package.
On Feb. 9, Google introduced a beta of its next-generation version of the PC application, Google Desktop 3, including a new feature dubbed “Search Across Computers” that has caused some industry watchers to label the new iteration of the software as a potentially serious privacy risk.
Search Across Computers allows people with registered Google accounts to mine for information stored on multiple computers they work on, and garner information from their desktops remotely from other devices.
According to some experts, including lawyers for IT industry watchers Electronic Frontier Foundation, the function could make personal or corporate data “more vulnerable to subpoenas from the government and possibly private litigants” while also providing a “convenient one-stop-shop for hackers” were they to obtain a users Google password and therefore be able to access any data shared with Search Across Computers.
EMC executives said the controversy over the feature has done nothing to change their minds about the value of Google Desktop Search. Lubor Ptacek, director of product marketing for EMCs Software Group, indicated that the companys customers are still interested in working with the technology in their content management operations, and he said his company will continue to support integration with the product.
While Google makes the Desktop Search technology available for free to anyone who downloads it, EMC has worked with the company to go further and help marry their respective applications. Documentum ECI is an ECM search engine used for tracking data within corporate IT operations.
However, Ptacek said EMC, based in Hopkinton, Mass., will give its customers alternatives if they are spooked by the possibility of introducing Google Desktop 3 into their businesses, including offering the opportunity to use earlier versions of the software that did not include Search Across Computers.
“We will leave it up to the customer to determine which version of Google Desktop they want to use,” Ptacek said. “It is important to note that our technology, the ECI services, allows users to search across different sources and repositories, Google Desktop being one of them; we respect the security model of any information source.”
In fact, the executive said the uncertainty caused by the emergence of such widely available search tools, which can also be introduced into corporate PCs by individual users, is one of the primary reasons why customers are investing in ECM.
“These types of issues are driving the adoption of enterprise content management technologies,” he said. “Due to security concerns with managing content residing on an employees desktop, companies are turning to [our solutions]; with enterprise content management, companies are able to apply policies to ensure that critical content is secure.”
Google representatives also downplayed the effect of the Search Across Computers controversy in the enterprise space. Spokespeople for the Mountain View, Calif., company said it will be launching a version of the Desktop Search 3 software designed specifically for enterprise users in the coming weeks that should help reassure potential EMC users about security issues.
As with its earlier versions of Desktop Search for Enterprise, company spokesperson Sonya Boralv said, the upcoming application will include tools that allow IT managers to shut off any feature such as Search Across Computers that they decide not to introduce to other workers.
Privacy Risks of Desktop
Boralv pointed out that in order to launch Search Across Computers, users must go through a number of steps that outline the technology and its potential risks, and specifically opt in for the tool. Any information shared among computers via the service is wiped off of Googles servers if it has not been accessed in 30 days time.
Using Google Desktop 3 for Enterprise, PC users will also need to have administrative permissions to introduce the technology on their devices, a responsibility that few companies are willing to hand out to most employees in the current era of widely distributed malicious software programs and viruses.
“Google wants to give enterprises maximum control over how this product is used and employed within the corporate environment,” Boralv said. “On flip side, for consumers, as a service provider we want to be as up-front and transparent as possible about how the data is treated, and they are forced to go through many steps, and agree to policies before using [Desktop Search]; our goal isnt to trick anyone.”
Despite Googles promise of having the best intentions, some industry analysts have recommended that companies avoid Search Across Computers altogether. In a research note published this week, Whit Andrews, an analyst with Gartner, based in Stamford, Conn., labeled the feature as “a convenience that brings with it a certain degree of risk.”
Further identifying Search Across Computers as a “unacceptable security risk to many enterprises” largely because workers are likely to use the technology improperly and mistakenly share proprietary information, Andrews recommended that companies using Desktop Search 3 should immediately disable the feature and make sure that they have protected any information from being sent out onto Googles Web servers.
Advocate organizations such as the EFF remain far more incensed by the tool, and pointed to Googles recent admission that it agreed to cooperate with the U.S. federal government by allowing law enforcement officials access to users search histories as proof that the company does not respect individuals privacy.
As a result, people who dont understand the implications of Search Across Computers could have their data exposed unintentionally, EFF said.
“This Google product highlights a key privacy problem in the digital age,” Cindy Cohn, EFFs legal director, said in a statement. “Many Internet innovations involve storing personal files on a service providers computer, but under outdated laws, consumers who want to use these new technologies have to surrender their privacy rights.
“If Google wants consumers to trust it to store copies of personal computer files, e-mails, search histories and chat logs, it should stand with EFF and demand that Congress update the privacy laws to better reflect life in the wired world,” Cohn said.
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