Thursday, February 23, 2006

What is Happening, Google?

Google is both the web surfer's and the investors dream. With a clean interface that provides quick and accurate search results, and a stock that closed today at $378.07/share, the search giant is an unquestionable technological powerhouse. It has filled the niche once occupied by Yahoo, and is considered on par with Microsoft and Sun Microsystems.

But Google's been claiming some poor press lately, and not all unwarranted. Recently, Google has been taking fire from human-rights advocates worldwide for its self-censorship in China. The domain has existed for some time under the same technology as the common engine, but Chinese users became frustrated with their government's blocks on sensitive material. Now Google has gone public, and it has decided to save costs by doing the censoring itself. How can a company devoted to finding accurate and unbiased information perform such an unethical act to limit freedom of information?

On the domestic front, Google has launched to wide public support a number of services that are undermining the company's slogan of "Don't be Evil." But privacy and security concerns have constantly been raised. Google's AdSense advertising scheme targets text-based ads to users search queries. But it also reads the contents of Gmail users' private email messages to match relevant ads for the user. AdSense also scans users' Atom feeds if they use Google's feed aggregation--both embedded in Gmail, and independent in the user's Google account.

Recently Google also began logging a user's searches if he is signed into his Google account. This is while the company is fighting court subpoenas in federal cases for search logs (scroll in the link to the second excerpt: "...Demographics of its users"). Google, you can't sit on the fence. Either keep all the information and make it available to whoever needs it and notify users they are under surveillance, or delete any record of me. I shouldn't have to exempt myself from logging routines. Play it safe--let the users choose to opt-in, not be forced to opt-out.

And Google's Desktop Search service has just entered version 3. And for the third time security analysts scream out warnings. An index of files on your computer like DS keeps is like a treasure map for hackers--and Google is notorious for not securing this index file adequately. If the index is found by a malicious hacker, he can use it to find personal information, credit card information, browsing histories, and a myriad of other private items that you don't want public.

Despite all of this, I still use Google. And I use many of Google's other services, including Gmail, Google Maps and Earth, and Picasa (I don't use Desktop Search; I use Copernic's instead). Even with the privacy and security concerns, Google's services do their job well. The search is clean and efficient, the services are fast, and all of them carry small but handy features that just makes a users life easier. But I also run a tight ship on my computer. It is heavily firewalled (both software and hardware), I'm very careful with spam and what information I make available, I scan for viruses and malware every few days, and I don't go all gung-ho downloading whatever I see online. Most users aren't this careful, and it is for these people that Google may pose a security and privacy risk.

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