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Google's Desktop Search Red Flag

The beta version of Google's latest desktop search tool provides users with weather updates, stock quotes and news headlines. But some people are at issue with what the product is providing Google.

Google Desktop 3 contains a feature called "Search Across Computers" that, according to the search giant, enables users to search their documents and view Web pages across all of their computers.

While previous versions of the desktop search application indexed files stored on a person's computer, the beta version of Desktop 3 copies files to Google's computers. This permits the data indexed on one computer to be searched by a second system.

Users can limit the automatic transfers by changing the settings in the application's preferences.

Although Google said it stores the personal information for only 30 days and deletes the files if unused, privacy experts are up in arms over the potential for abuse.

"It's shocking Google expects it will be allowed to store consumers' files on its servers," Kevin Bankston, staff attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, told internetnews.com.

The new feature is "one-stop shopping for hackers if they get hold of your password," he added.

Responding to some of the criticism, Google said the personal data will be encrypted and restricted and will not be seen by the company.

"This is not something a novice user will stumble across," Sonya Boralv, a Google spokesperson, told internetnews.com. "It's not easy to enable it. We've put a lot of safeguards in this feature."

Bankston doesn't see it that way.

"That's disingenuous -– they want people to use it," he said. Google is not a search engine, but an ad publisher. "They should promise not to scan all your files" for targeting ads.

Users of Desktop 3 can delete their files from Google, as well as indicate which files and folders should be included in any computer-to-computer search. If the data isn't accessed within 30 days, it is automatically deleted.

"It's use it or lose it," according to Boralv.

Allen Weiner, analyst with research firm Gartner, said fears that tax records or medical information will be stored by Google's computers are misguided.

"Google and others should not be chastised" because of misplaced concern. Of more concern is someone using a "sniffer" to steal personal data, Weiner said.

Bankston believes laws have not kept up with advances in computer data sharing. EFF charges personal data stored by Google could be provided to the government with a simple subpoena.

"Google needs to use some of its massive resources to update the privacy policy," Bankston said.

Besides, there is more to the desktop search application.

"To view it as just computer-to-computer is short-sighted," Weiner said. The tool recognizes the public desire for portability. "Google is trying to offer something that people want." Weiner sees the search expanding from the computer to mobile devices.

While Google is already pointing out what they are doing to minimize the privacy worries, Weiner said the app must keep users informed throughout the search process.