The week in technology: Privacy fears over Google 3.0

Listen to this article

00:00
00:00

A new version of Google Desktop triggered a debate among bloggers after a US digital rights campaign group said it posed a risk to security.

The not-for-profit Electronic Frontier Foundation said a feature in the software allows Google to keep personal data on its servers for up to 30 days.

The feature that has raised concern - called Search Across Computers - lets users search their content on multiple computers. But to do this they have to allow Google to transfer the files such as Word and PDF documents to its own servers.

Search Across Computers is optional and only works with certain types of files: web history (from Internet Explorer, Firefox, Netscape, and Mozilla), Microsoft Word documents, Microsoft Excel spreadsheets, Microsoft PowerPoint presentations, PDF files and Text files in My Documents. Google 3.0, which was launched on Friday in a beta version (and can be downloaded here), will initially only be available to Windows XP or Windows 2000 users.

Google are trying to play down user’s fears by encrypting the data, limiting access to it and holding it for a finite period, but some bloggers were worried data could be used against them - especially in light of the US government’s request that Google, along with other internet companies, provide samples of searches, although Google has so far refused to cooperate.

The government could then demand these personal files with only a subpoena rather than the search warrant it would need to sieze the same things from your home or business,” said a EFF spokesman.

“Not a chance in the World I would ever use this service. If Google says they won’t use your data and only a few key people will have access why the need to hold on to it for up to 30 days?” asked a reader on Techdirt. However another said: “Well, if people are overly concerned, they don’t have to use it. They key is that it’s never forced on them.”

However, Marissa Mayer, Google’s vice president of search products and user experience, predicted the feature would be greeted favourably by most users.

We think this will be a very useful tool, but you will have to give up some of your privacy...For many of us, that trade off will make a lot of sense,” she was reported as saying by the BBC.

Bloggers were undecided about the trade off.

”This is of course a touchy privacy subject, but the ability to search from a remote computer will be very welcome by some users,” said Michael Arrington on Techcrunch in a blog entitled “Privacy is dead”.

Mr Arrington added that the feature was an about turn for Google.

“While Google has not yet released v 3.0, they are making significant changes to policies on their desktop which previously stated that hard drive data would never be stored on Google Servers.”

The feature has a lot of potential... but it will only go so far as people are confident that Google will (and can) keep their data private,” said Mike on Techdirt.

Yahoo blasted for role in blogger arrest

More furore over the role of internet companies in China was sparked this week by fresh accusations about Yahoo’s collaboration with communist police there. Yahoo had already come under fire for its cooperation with authorities in the jailing of Shi Tao, an outspoken journalist who used Yahoo’s email service and was jailed for 10 years last April.

However political critic Liu Xiaobo and Reporters Without Borders wrote that an earlier jailing of Li Zhi, a Chinese dissident, showed Yahoo been cooperating closely with authorities as early as 2003.

Although Microsoft has also come under fire for removing the blog of a Chinese journalist, Google’s China.cn was the subject of more outrage than either Microsoft or Yahoo’s actions there - perhaps because Google’s “don’t be evil” motto is just asking for trouble.

Joe Beaulaurier at the Unofficial Yahoo Blog pointed out that Yahoo’s China business was run by Alibaba.com after a transaction between the two companies in October, and accused Reporters Without Borders of seizing on the Yahoo! brand as a way of drawing attention to democracy problems in China.

“But as I type this I have to wonder if I am just stirring the pot with my “what if”’s and my geocentric perception of what it’s like in China these days,” he added. “I really can’t imagine. Nor can I imagine what it’s like to try and operate an Internet services company in a country with a censoring regime.”

Someone who does know is the anonymous Chinese journalist who writes the “Non violent resistance” blog hosted on MSN.

“Things are getting crazier by the day,” he wrote on Friday after finding another Chinese blog had been blocked.

“I wonder if language is my only layer of protection right now. Maybe I’ll be taken offline soon too.”

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved. You may share using our article tools. Please don't copy articles from FT.com and redistribute by email or post to the web.