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A prominent digital rights group has forcefully urged computers users not to install the latest version of Google’s desktop software, which it says greatly increases the risk to personal privacy.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation, the nonprofit group who last week sued AT&T for allegedly giving the US National Security Agency access to its networks and customer records, is concerned that Google’s new “search across computers” feature will make users’ personal data more vulnerable to subpoenas from the government as well as more convenient for hackers to access.

If consumers choose to use it, the feature - part of Google’s free Desktop Version 3 downloadable software which was released on Thursday - allows them to search across multiple computers they may own or have access to locate a personal document, such as a Word document, PDF, or spreadsheet. The issue is that to enable this feature, users must allow Google keep their personal data on its servers for up to 30 days.

Kevin Bankston, EFF staff attorney, said: “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 concern comes as Google is fighting a US government subpoena for information about the words people use to find websites on its search engine and the website addresses it compiles, a demand which rival search engine company Yahoo has already complied with.

“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,” added Mr Bankston.

The reason for this, said the EFF, is that the Electronic Communication Privacy Act of 1986 gives only limited privacy protection to emails and other files that are stored with online service providers - compared with that for the same information kept on a home computer.

Marissa Mayer, Google’s vice president of search products and user experience, admitted that some privacy would have to be given up, but said that for many users the trade-off would be worth it.

Google has said that it plans to encrypt all data transferred from users’ hard drives and restrict access to the information.

How Google’s desktop search privacy stacks up:

Many software programmes can send data over the internet from a personal computer to a company's servers. In the early days of the web’s popularity there was widespread concern about “cookies” - text files which are surreptitiously stored on web users’ computers and record data about web browsing habits, usually for commercial and advertising purposes.

More recently many web users have become victim to “trojans” and “spyware”, a more aggressive approach in which unwanted software is surreptitiously installed and captures information, including passwords, usually for more nefarious commercial reasons such as harvesting information for spamming.

Microsoft has in the past attracted criticism for some of its features, such as its automated Windows updates. Several years ago it abandoned a project known as “Hailstorm”, designed for a “single sign-on” between different websites, because of privacy concerns about computer users’ information being held by Microsoft.

However privacy will remain an issue for internet and software companies, as software programmes are increasingly designed to take advantage of the internet for sharing and updating data.

Google’s Desktop software competes with desktop search tools from other companies including Yahoo, Microsoft and InterActiveCorp’s Ask Jeeves and start-ups such as Blinkx. All of these programmes include tools to search files on the user’s own desktop, and on the web.

The difference with the latest version of Google’s software is that its “Search Across Computers” feature also allows users to give other people access to search their computer files. But in doing so, they must allow Google’s own computers to make copies of some of their documents. Users can exclude specific documents from this, but critics say that few will bother.

Google’s old Desktop FAQ: “These combined results can be seen only from your own computer; your computer’s content is never sent to Google (or anyone else).”

Google’s new Desktop features description: “Your HTTPS web history will never be shared with your other computers, whether or not you allow indexing HTTPS items on one of your computers.”

“Note: Only new items indexed on a computer after you enable Search Across Computers will be found when you search from your other computers. Items indexed before you enabled Search Across Computers are not visible from your other computers.”

What other desktop search software vendors say:

Yahoo: “Yahoo! Desktop Search is not spyware because Yahoo! never knows what you’re searching for on your computer.”

Ask Jeeves: “(T)he Ask Jeeves Desktop Search program indexes your computer files only locally on your computer - we do not see them or have access to any of your files.”

Microsoft MSN: “As long as your password is secure, your e-mail messages or the contents of your My Documents folder cannot be searched by anyone else, even if the computer is shared with other people.”

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved.
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