Google released a new version of their Desktop software, which includes a feature allowing users to search their files across computers. The service is not activated by default, and (savvy) users can opt to block certain files from being accessible across computers.
Even with these helpful design considerations, this service remains problematic. For “search across computers” to work, Google has to copy your computer’s files to Google’s servers, and then those files are available to be downloaded on the other linked computers. Previous versions of Google Desktop merely indexed your files; now, full copies of your files are stored on Google’s servers. A key concern here is that electronic files located on third-party servers have much less privacy protections than the files located on your own computer.
EFF immediately picked up on the privacy and surveillance threats inherent to this new feature:
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. “Unless you configure Google Desktop very carefully, and few people will, Google will have copies of your tax returns, love letters, business records, financial and medical files, and whatever other text-based documents the Desktop software can index. 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.”