Google, the Desktop, and Privacy

Google just released Google Desktop for Mac, and that got me thinking again about the Google and Privacy issue I wrote about here and here. I said that Microsoft might have an interesting privacy advantage, because your data lives on your computer, and their software doesn’t need to send much info to the mothership. By comparison, Google usually stores all of your data on their servers, and there are big privacy implications about what they do with this data voluntarily, what happens if they leak it accidentally, or what happens if they receive a subpoena.

The logical extension is that, with Google Desktop, Google has a huge opportunity to vastly improve its privacy technology. Cryptographic techniques can be built into the desktop software, ads can be downloaded without shipping the entire plaintext content to the Google servers, synchronization between my laptop and desktop can be done with real cryptography, etc… So, is this happening?

The only data point so far: DaringFireball just reviewed the files installed by Google Desktop on the Mac, and it’s not a pretty picture: Google’s software is injected into every desktop application you run, and it’s not clear what happens then to your private data: is the index sent to Google’s servers? Google needs to seriously clarify why they’re doing this, what they’ll do with your data, and what precautions they’re taking to safeguard it. I’m sure they mean well, but there’s not enough transparency about what’s going on under the covers.

Google Desktop is an opportunity for Google to achieve vastly improved privacy. Unlike some naysayers, I don’t think their business model depends on violating users’ privacy, as long as they use the right cryptographic tools. Let’s hope they pursue this avenue!

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