EFF warns against Google Desktop

The new Google Desktop features a hard-drive sharing option that EFF says is a recipe for subpoenas.

News of a feature in the new Google Desktop app that lets users upload their hard disk contents to Google servers and then download them to another machine on their local network is a privacy disaster in the making says the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Given the backdrop of the Justice Dept. subpoenas of Google search information and revelations that several search companies have turned over information, EFF finds Google's timing shocking.

"Coming on the heels of serious consumer concern about government snooping into Google's search logs, it's shocking that Google expects its users to now trust it with the contents of their personal computers," said EFF Staff Attorney Kevin Bankston. "If you use the Search Across Computers feature and don't configure Google Desktop very carefully—and most people won't—Google will have copies of your tax returns, love letters, business records, financial and medical files, and whatever other text-based documents the Desktop software can index. The government could then demand these personal files with only a subpoena rather than the search warrant it would need to seize the same things from your home or business, and in many cases you wouldn't even be notified in time to challenge it. Other litigants—your spouse, your business partners or rivals, whoever—could also try to cut out the middleman (you) and subpoena Google for your files."

EFF's Cindy Cohn says the disparity between privacy protection for information stored online as opposed to your local hard drive means there's a need for a legislative fix.

"This Google product highlights a key privacy problem in the digital age," said Cindy Cohn, EFF's Legal Director. "Many Internet innovations involve storing personal files on a service provider's computer, but under outdated laws, consumers who want to use these new technologies have to surrender their privacy rights. If Google wants consumers to trust it to store copies of personal computer files, emails, search histories and chat logs, and still 'not be evil,' it should stand with EFF and demand that Congress update the privacy laws to better reflect life in the wired world."

But in the larger context of unauthorized wiretapping in the war on terror, it's questionable whether Congress would impede the Justice Dept's data gathering abilities.