Google Desktop Search: Ready for Business?

When the beta for Google Desktop Search came out in October of 2004, there were cries of both horror and delight — delight about a desktop search tool that actually worked, and horror when several observers pointed out potential security and privacy concerns. Now Google has released the 1.0 version of the desktop search application. Does this release address the issues raised by the beta?

Google has been fairly open with its beta products – who hasn’t yet received an invite for Gmail? – and is known for testing those products for months before going to a full-fledged release. The search engine giant’s recent release of Google Desktop Search 1.0 is no exception. I can remember my fellow editor trying it out in beta not long after I came onboard here at DeveloperShed in November, and singing its praises.

For those of you who aren’t writers or editors, this meant that the program had passed a major test. I’m not saying that my colleague was disorganized, you understand. I’m saying that the organization problems faced by a working writer/editor trying to keep track of authors’ communications, manuscripts, source material, schedules, deliverables, and many more minutiae are…well, if not unique, then certainly formidable. Indeed, while I don’t doubt that many home PC users found the Google Desktop Search beta very helpful, I’m quite certain that it was originally designed with the enterprise market in mind.

The reasoning behind that is simple: the stakes are usually higher when a business misplaces information than when an individual misplaces information. Additionally, businesses generally produce more information than single individuals. Combine those two points, and you have set the stage for an information management nightmare. Google quite justifiably expects that any application that can help workers find the information they need to do their jobs – especially if it helps them find it quickly and efficiently – would be welcomed with open arms.

Up until recently, though, this particular program came with a catch. Google released the beta for its Desktop Search in October of 2004. In December of that year, Gartner Group warned enterprises not to use the tool. The eminent industry research firm raised the matter of security issues. According to Gartner research director Maurene Grey, quoted in a CNETAsia story: “We have no problem with it being used for personal use. Our concern is…when it is used in a corporation, we have some security and privacy issues. Google says it will collect only nonpersonal data, but in a corporation how can you monitor what is being collected?”

Indeed, those of us who watch for any news related to Google – and in this field, who doesn’t? – may recall that, later that same month, the search engine powerhouse needed to patch a security vulnerability in the desktop search tool. A pair of graduate students discovered the vulnerability while performing a security audit as part of their final project in their Computer Systems Security course. An attacker could take advantage of the vulnerability by including a Java applet in a Web page and setting it up to appear to the user as a normal part of the page. The attack would work by tricking the Google Desktop tool into integrating its local search results; the applet would then read those results and send them back to the attacker.

Google’s prompt response to the issue was reassuring. The question is, now that the full-fledged 1.0 release of the Google Desktop Search tool is available, is it more secure?

Google describes its Desktop Search as “how our brains would work if we had photographic memories.” It provides full text searching of a variety of files, including email, chats, and viewed Web pages located on PCs. The application creates an index of all your searchable information, and continually updates that index throughout the day.

Google Desktop Search 1.0 can search a number of file types that the beta version could not. These include PDF files; multimedia files, including audio and videos by meta-tag (which allows you to search by song title or artist name); Web pages viewed using Netscape 7+, Mozilla and Firefox browsers; and email from Netscape Mail, Mozilla Mail and Thunderbird. There are also plug-ins available that allow the tool to search even more file formats. Those latter features in particular make the tool more open source friendly than it was before.

It still only works with Windows – specifically, Windows XP or Windows 2000 Service Pack 3 and above. In my opinion, Google is missing the boat by leaving out the Macintosh and Linux users. Macintosh computers still enjoy a certain amount of popularity among graphic artists and others in publishing, where information is the entire point of our existence. One can only hope that Google adds support for those users later.

The program itself requires 500 MB of available space. Keep in mind that it makes a cache with copies of all of your original files…so when it creates the index, it doubles the amount of storage space your data takes up. This could be an unpleasant surprise if you have an older machine on which your files take up hundreds of megabytes.

Google Desktop Search allows users to conduct searches through a Deskbar interface. The small search box stays in your Windows taskbar. As with Google itself, users need only to type in their search queries and hit Enter. Search results come up in a browser window. There is a floating version of this Deskbar as well, that users can move to anywhere on the desktop.

Google Desktop Search hunts through your local drives and files on network drives created while the computer is running. It does not actually do a complete search of the Web if you are only searching your desktop. Web searching can be accomplished as a separate act. Be careful, however; if you change the type of search performed (“Search Desktop” or “Search Web”), it becomes the default until you change it again.

Search commands are simple, and include the features that Google itself uses. For example, if you want to find a document that mentions one particular item without mentioning another item – say, operating systems, but not Windows – you can enter “operating systems” –Windows. The minus sign before the word “Windows” will tell the tool not to return any documents that include that word, even if the document mentions operating systems.

With email, you can use the subject, to, from, cc and bcc fields for your searches. You can even specify the type of file to search. For example, if you are looking for that spreadsheet you wrote covering this month’s financial report, you can search on spreadsheet files only, and not get any of the email that you wrote about the spreadsheet returned in the results.

One possible security feature aimed as businesses is that you can only install Google Desktop Search on your computer if you have administrator privileges. It’s pretty common for home PC users to have those privileges on their own machines, but that is not so common in the business world. So that adds a certain level of control. On the other hand, you also need administrator privileges to actually use the tool, which may be overkill. Of course, this doesn’t exactly solve the classic problem with this tool, which is that it makes it ridiculously easy for anyone who just happens to get in front of your PC to go snooping around in your files, including your email.

The Desktop Search tool offers its users another unpleasant surprise: it is difficult to delete data. In fact, by default, the program never deletes anything. Even after you delete an item, you can retrieve it by clicking on its “cached” link. This is great for those who unintentionally delete an item that they discover they need later, but not so great for those who may want to get rid of certain computer files permanently – and there are certainly reasons to do that, which fall within the scope of the law. This also increases the “snoop” problem to include files you have deleted. The simplest approach may be to direct Google not to index certain items or directories to begin with, and set your preferences accordingly.

There are certain other options you may want to set to improve security while using Google Desktop Search. If you have password-protected Office documents, or are worried about secure Web pages that you visit, you can tell the tool not to search those. In fact, you can even tell it not to search other Web pages regardless of whether they are protected by Secure Sockets Layer – this will cover items such as Web-based email pages.

As to privacy, Google emphasizes that it does not make the content of Google Desktop Search users’ computers accessible to anyone other than the user, including themselves. The company has an explicit privacy policy covering the tool in place, which you can read here (http://desktop.google.com/privacypolicy.html).

Google Desktop Search 1.0 is, in general, a strong improvement over the beta version. The standalone version of the tool is capable of searching more kinds of file types, and users can even add plug-ins if this is not sufficient. Furthermore, it offers greater control as to what kinds of file types the tool does not index or search. Deleting files remains an issue, but that has an upside if you find that you sometimes delete files you need later.

The problem with using Google Desktop Search on a computer with multiple users remains, though in a slightly different form. Because only those with administrator privileges on a PC can install and use the tool, typically only managers will be able to use it on a computer with multiple users. Never having worked in such an environment myself, I do not know if this is a good security practice…or defeating the purpose of the tool. It could even be both. At this point, though, it may be too technically difficult to create a version of Google Desktop Search that will only search a single user’s files on a computer used by multiple people – and only when that user is the one performing the search at that.

Overall, though some areas remain questionable, Google Desktop Search 1.0 is more secure than the beta version of the program. Google has also acted responsibly whenever problems have cropped up with the program when it was in beta, and can be expected to continue to do so. Google has given users of its desktop search tool more options, more choices about how they can handle their data; that is generally a good thing when it comes to search, and in this particular case it even has the potential to improve the security and privacy the application affords. Whether it is secure enough to be used in a business setting may be something that each company or department needs to decide on its own; the potential loss of security, however, should be weighed against the vast amount of time, money and effort that can be saved by using this tool.

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