Privacy concerns over Google Desktop 3

Update: A feature allowing users to search files across multiple computers 'greatly increases the risk to consumer privacy', according to the EFF

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) said on Thursday that a feature added to the latest version of Google Desktop has serious privacy implications.

Google Desktop 3 Beta, which was released on Thursday, includes a feature that allows users to search for files across multiple computers, by storing copies of the user's documents on Google's servers.

But the EFF claimed this feature "greatly increases the risk to consumer privacy" due to US legislation — the Electronic Communication Privacy Act — which means files that are stored with online service providers enjoy less privacy protection than information stored on a home computer.

"Unless you configure Google Desktop very carefully, and few people will, 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," said EFF staff attorney Kevin Bankston.

"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," Bankston added.

A Google spokeswoman said on Saturday that "privacy was an important consideration in the development of this feature and we've taken a number of steps to protect the privacy of our users." She said that users must opt in to this feature and that users can select which files they want to share across computers.

She also said the data is only stored temporarily on Google's servers and that it is transmitted and stored securely. She was unable to comment on the points made by EFF.

Google automatically excludes from being transferred any password-protected files and secure Web pages, and users can exclude any other folders or files they want to, Pichai added.

Although the UK has different legislation surrounding the access of electronic data, Peter Sommer, a research fellow at the London School of Economics, said any data that Google stores on its servers could potentially be accessed by law enforcement agencies.

"If a law enforcement agency wants this information from Google, legally they're entitled to do that provide they comply with the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act," said Sommer. "From a practical perspective, law enforcement agencies are always looking for places where they can get a great deal of information without much effort."