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The Dangers of Desktop Search- Google Tool as Spyware

by Wayne Porter

We openly admit we are fan of Google and their search technology. Never before has one company brought such a huge revolution to the WWW. When Google launched their desktop search application we immediately gave the beta a whirl on our systems.

Google has billed this as "photographic memory for your PC" and Google didn't let us down. Here is a great piece of software that scans your system and applies the same powerful search you get on the Net only now you have it for all the gigs on your PC. The application was even able to index and cache secure pages, IM messages and chats as well as e-mail.

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So far Google lets you index and cache:

Outlook email
Outlook Express email
AOL chats
Word Documents
Excel Spreadsheets
PowerPoint Presentations
Web History
And even HTTPS (secure pages) in web history

Imagine all the cool stuff you had forgotten about like messages you might have read in a forum or via a web-based e-mail client. All conveniently indexed and cached by Google.

So how could this be dangerous you ask? Imagine this scenario...

A miscreant goes to a university computer or a computer at your local library and installs the Google Desktop Search application. He takes a moment to hide the icon on the system and then walks away for a few weeks. He comes back and fires up the program and begins entering strings like "password" and "Credit card".

In this scenario the threat is apparent. Because the Google Desktop Search program is so powerful it is trivial for someone to install it and use it as snooping agent. Google never forgets.

For awhile we debated on whether to list this as spyware. Even though it clearly wasn?t created for that reason it can certainly be used for nefarious purposes. The same goes for  legit "child monitoring programs" e.g. TeenMinder or web filtering programs which have useful intent but can easily be abused by unscrupulous parties.

For now we aren't including it in the guide although that may change. Users will just have to be even more aware that seemingly innocuous programs can have hidden dangers- even useful programs like Google's Desktop Search sites in the grey- especially in the enterprise. This is true for any machine where more than one person has access to the box e.g. shared home computer, open terminal, or university computer. it is not the fault of technology. Technology is neutral and evil intent is enacted by the user and how they wield the technology.

If you are at an open machine we give the following advice:

1) Only use it for browsing and not for reading e-mail or ordering products.

2) Never conduct banking or other sensitive activities on a public terminal.

3) If you must use it for e-mail be sure to run a remote anti-spyware scan on the machine.

4) Delete cache, cookies, URLS history and temporary files on the machine when done surfing.

5) Be aware that useful programs can be used for spying. In the case of the GoogleDesktop Search hit CTRL-ALT-DELETE and navigate to the Processes Tab. Look for either one or both of these processes running: GoogleDesktop.exe and/or GoogleDesktopIndex.exe. If they are running everywhere you go is getting archived.

6) Always, always use common sense. Try to avoid using any machine which is not completely under your control.

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