Google speed bump draws scorn

Search giant raises privacy and security hackles with its application that accelerates Web surfing.

Google has raised privacy and security hackles once again, this time by developing an application that accelerates Web surfing but can also delete pages or serve up password-protected content.

The complaints center on the search giant's Web Accelerator, which was on Wednesday. Downloadable software for broadband users, Web Accelerator is intended to speed access to Web pages by serving up cached or compressed copies of sites from Google's servers.

Though the software can be useful to consumers who are in a hurry--broadband connections already deliver pages quickly--critics were quick to find a potentially damaging glitch. A flaw with Web Accelerator, which Google acknowledges, can serve cached copies of private

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What's new:
Critics are rankled over a flaw with Google's new Web acceleration software that can serve cached copies of password-protected content.

Bottom line:
Google says it is working on a fix for the Web Accelerator threat. Regardless, privacy advocates charge that the search engine's privacy policy doesn't address some consumer concerns.

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For example, using the software, a Web surfer might call up a discussion group page and see the name of another group member, making it appear as if the surfer is signed in as that user. Web Accelerator does not cache secure Web sites using the "HTTPS" specification, such as banking or credit card pages, however, so data such as financial transactions are not at stake.

Marissa Mayer, Google's vice president of Web products, said the company is working on a fix but downplayed the threat. "It looks worse than it is," she said. "We've cached the page with that user name on it. But you are not actually signed in; you couldn't operate as that person," she said, adding it has affected only a small number of sites.

"We're committed to provide users the utmost of integrity in security and privacy, and we're working with urgency to solve this problem," she added.

More broadly, privacy advocates are concerned about the scope of data collected with the Web Accelerator, charging that Google's privacy policy does not address some important consumer issues. Critics say the tool's capabilities to monitor a person's travels across the Web feeds into an overarching worry that Google is becoming a massive market research firm capable of collecting oodles of information on millions of people.

Not a Google first
"The business they're in here with this new product is market research--they'll be looking at what people are doing on the Internet, what they're reading, what they're buying," said Richard Smith, a privacy and security expert who runs the Web site Computerbytesman.org. "There's potentially a lot of information just from the click-stream of the URLs people visit."

Google has run into privacy and security problems before when introducing new services. The company's free e-mail service, Gmail, roiled the privacy community for its practice of scanning the contents of e-mail to deliver related ads. Although the furor eventually subsided. Google's desktop search software, introduced late last year, contained a security glitch that temporarily exposed private data on the Web. And Google's latest toolbar was the subject of criticism for a feature that converted text on third-party Web pages to Google-designated links.

Google's Mayer said the Web Accelerator is not a market research tool. Rather, the company built the application to give people the same fast experience they have at Google--most search pages are returned in a fraction of a second--while surfing the Web at large. If the tool can help someone save two or three hours a month surfing the Web, that person might spend more time searching with Google, Mayer reasoned.

Google states in its privacy policy that it does not share personally identifiable information with use of the software. Still, privacy experts warn that the policy is silent about what click-stream data

 

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