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2/10/2006
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Google Desktop Search Tool Stokes Privacy Fears

Want privacy? Don't give up your personal data. That's the gist of the brouhaha that followed Google's release of an upgrade to its Google Desktop software.

Want privacy? Don't give up your personal data.

That's the gist of the brouhaha that followed Google Inc.'s release this week of an upgrade to its Google Desktop software, which can store files from a PC on the company's server.

Among the enhancements in the new version of the product, which is available by download, is a feature called Search Across Computers, which allows people to choose files on their hard drives that they want Google to automatically index, store and track on its servers, and make accessible over the Web from any computer. People can disable the feature, if they don't want files stored online.

According to Google's privacy policy, the company would treat the files as personal data and not share it with anyone. Besides storing files, the company also offers to store a person's email and instant messaging correspondences, and while Google doesn't have any plans to use any of the information to target people with advertising, it doesn't say it won't in the future.

Nevertheless, even the vocal critics of the Mountain View, Calif., search engine agree that Google is not the villain with a black hat in offering to store personal data. "But, it's at least wearing a grey hat," Kevin Bankston, staff attorney for privacy advocate the Electronic Frontier Foundation, said.

The San Francisco group argues that many people are unlikely to take the time to learn the features that can disable and manage file and data sharing. In addition, it says Google is asking for too much information, and could enhance privacy of personal files by encrypting the data and giving its owners the only key to unlock the information.

"Google has a responsibility to make privacy by design a priority," Bankston said.

EFF, which advises people not to store personal data with Google, also argues that the company is making people more vulnerable to lawyers' subpoenas and government warrants, because current federal law gives less protection to data stored online than to data stored in a home PC.

But Andrew Serwin, a partner and privacy expert with the law firm Foley & Lardner LLP in San Diego, disagrees, arguing that government, law enforcement and attorneys in civil cases have to follow the same rules in seeking personal data online as offline.

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