Recently, a host of media stories have described several potential security vulnerabilities in Google Desktop. Are the flaws truly serious, or is the hype mainly about knocking the wildly successful Google down a peg?
Perhaps the largest concern has to do with the toolbar’s “Search Across Computers” functionality. This allows users to index and search files across multiple computers, creating a single, integrated results page.
A potential problem arises because copies of all these files, e-mails, and spreadsheets from people’s hard drives are stored remotely, in Google-owned servers. Google says that it encrypts the files it stores and also deletes them every 30 days. But many corporate IT managers aren’t sure they fully trust Google with so much of their potentially sensitive and proprietary information.
Some researchers have also pointed to the possibility of “man-in-the-middle” attacks, in which a hacker gets between Google and the person making the query. Such an attacker could manipulate search results, possibly installing malware onto a computer.
A survey of 1,200 IT professionals by the Ponemon Institute found that 60 percent were aware of the Google Desktop controversy and of those, 66 percent saw man-in-the-middle attacks as a serious concern.
A Google Desktop cross-site scripting vulnerability, which could have allowed an attacker to place malicious code on a user’s computer via that type of exploit, was discovered by a research firm. Google says it repaired the weakness.
When asked whether the transfer of data outside the enterprise using the “Search Across Computers” feature “creates an unacceptable security risk” for an organization, about 74 percent said yes. Only 16 percent said no, and 11 percent were unsure.
Another question posed was whether users with confidential or legally protected data such as legal, medical, or educational records should avoid using the “Search Across Computers” functionality. Over 83 percent said yes, about 10 percent said no, and 6 percent were unsure.
Researchers also asked whether the participants thought the cross-site scripting issue had been adequately resolved. Despite Google’s assertion that the problem had been fixed, 71 percent said the tool was still vulnerable to such attacks. The study did not ask respondents about their organizational policies or whether they were rethinking them.
Yale University posted a warning about Google Desktop online beginning late last year. The university also warns students about the tool during IT orientation sessions, says Morrow Long, director of information security, who adds that Yale did not participate in the Ponemon study.
Long says he is mainly concerned about the “Search Across Computers” functionality. “A lot of people probably don’t realize the information from their hard drives is stored on a remote server,” he says.
One concern is that Google could be hacked, Long says, because so much searchable data in one place could be an attractive target. Another is that Google might sell the data or use it for marketing purposes.
Google could also be subpoenaed by the government, he points out, as it and other search engines were last year when the Justice Department demanded search logs.
If companies choose to permit Google Toolbar, they should instruct staff to use a lock function disallowing “Search Across Computers,” says Gartner analyst John Pescatore. Individuals using the tool on their own hard drives should then do “some proactive auditing” to better understand what is being indexed. They may want to encrypt some data or store it on a separate disk, he adds.
Organizations could also consider purchasing Google Desktop for Enterprise, he says. It allows organizations to store data in-house and to centrally control features and preferences.