Google updates desktop web search application

Thenew version has technology benefits, but privacy disadvantages, says the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

Google has released a new beta version of its free, downloadable PC and web search application that expands the functionality of the product’s Sidebar feature, a panel that provides information from a variety of sources.

In the Google Desktop 3 beta, the Sidebar panel can be broken up into individual panels, which can in turn be placed in different parts of the screen, says Sundar Pichai, Google’s director of product management. The Sidebar panels give users access to email, news, weather, photos, stocks, syndicated website feeds and other sources of information.

Another enhancement to the Sidebar is the ability to share content with other users by sending it directly to another person’s Sidebar or via instant messaging : In both cases this is thanks to an integration with the Google Talk instant messaging service, so both users need to be logged into Google Talk. Content can also be shared via email, by launching an email interface from Sidebar. To share directly from one Sidebar to another, both users must have Google Desktop 3 beta installed. This isn’t a requirement for sharing content via Google Talk or email.

This new collaboration and sharing capability is the upgrade’s most compelling feature, because it adds a social computing dimension to the product, says Greg Sterling, an analyst with The Kelsey Group.

Because Google Desktop’s functionality can be extended through its application programming interfaces, it will be interesting to see how third-party developers broaden this social computing aspect of the product, he says.

Beyond the Sidebar enhancements, the application’s new version also lets users search for information across two or more of their computers. This way, someone could search their work PC from their home PC. To use this feature, Google Desktop 3 beta must be installed in each computer and the “search across computers” feature enabled. After a user chooses files he or she wants to be able to find on all the computers, Google will make copies of the full text of all those files and put them on each computer. The copies of the files will contain no special formatting nor pictures. During the replication process, the files will be temporarily stored on Google servers.

However, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) has recommended that users avoid enabling this “search across computers” feature. The storage of PC files on Google servers makes users more vulnerable to government subpoenas or from private litigants, the foundation said in a statement.

The US government and private litigants only need a subpoena to obtain personal files stored on Google servers, whereas a search warrant is required to get them if they are on a PC in a user’s home or office. This is because the US Electronic Communication Privacy Act affords less privacy protection to data stored on online service provider servers than to data stored on a home or work PC, the Foundation says.

The Foundation has encouraged Google to join it and other organisations that are asking the US Congress to strengthen the privacy protection of personal data stored on the servers of online service providers.

Google didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment about the Foundation’s warning.

Google Desktop 3 beta currently runs on Windows XP and Windows 2000 Service Pack 3 and above. It is currently available in English, but Google plans to release versions in 15 other languages.

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