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Monday, November 15, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.
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Small office / Home office
Warning on Google search

By MIKE LANGBERG
Knight Ridder Newspapers

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Google's new Desktop Search software is a muscle car among search engines, racing through data stored inside your computer to instantly find things you can't easily locate.

But it's capable of skidding off the road when driven without appropriate caution.

Introduced last month as a free download, Google Desktop Search (desktop.google.com) keeps track of files on your computer's hard drive in much the same way Google finds information on the Internet.

When you go to your browser's Google search page after installing Desktop Search, the first results are your own files.

If you're searching for information about Sunnyvale, Calif., for example, you get a list of e-mail, Word documents and plain-text documents that contain the word "Sunnyvale."

On my home PC, the first hit was an e-mail message from a friend about local politics, including a reference to that city. Below the Desktop Search results were the Web search results, starting with the city's home page.

Suddenly I no longer have to ponder where I saw some piece of information: In an e-mail? On a Web page? In a document? A single Google query covers everything I've seen on my computer since installing Desktop Search, as well as whatever is available on the Web.

This is valuable, yet occasionally creepy.

Desktop Search does three things that could compromise your privacy when someone else uses your computer:
 
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First, the software keeps a copy of all your AOL Instant Messenger conversations. AIM, for many users, is like talking over the water cooler — you say things you don't want preserved for posterity.

Second, the software keeps its own copy of all your Outlook and Outlook Express e-mail messages, even after you delete them from within Outlook or Outlook Express. A confidential company memo, in other words, will still pop up during Google searches after you've emptied the Deleted Items folder in Outlook.

Third, the software keeps a copy of every Web page you visit and lists those pages in search results with the date and time of your visit.

That means if someone else uses your PC and enters the word bank or brokerage in Desktop Search, they could uncover your confidential financial information.

I called several security and privacy experts to see if the far-reaching power of Desktop Search would stir up controversy. The consensus, for now at least, is no.

My bottom line: I wouldn't recommend installing Desktop Search on any computer you don't own, such as PCs at work or school.

Desktop Search is officially a beta, or unfinished pre-release program. Usually, software stays in beta for only a few weeks, but Google routinely runs beta programs for months or years.

You'll need a PC running Windows XP or Windows 2000 with 500 megabytes of free space on the hard drive. Desktop Search doesn't work with older versions of Windows or the Macintosh.

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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