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1/19/2010
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New Proxy Promises To Shield Users From Google Data Collection

GoogleSharing is an anonymizing proxy service that pools user search data, security researcher says

Even before news broke of its hack in China, Google was making some privacy-conscious users nervous in its efforts to analyze searching behavior. This week, a security researcher has launched a new tool designed to ease that concern.

GoogleSharing is a free service that "anonymizes" Google searches by creating a shared proxy that pools the search results of many users, making it difficult for Google to tell what each individual's behavior might be.

Developed by security researcher Moxie Marlinspike, the proxy service is designed to put the brakes on Google's collection of users' behavioral data.

"If you're like most Internet users, Google knows more about you than you might be comfortable with," the GoogleSharing site says. "Whether you were logged in to a Google account or not, they know everything you've ever searched for, what search results you clicked on, what news you read, and every place you've ever gotten directions to.

"Most of the time, thanks to things like Google Analytics, they even know which websites you visited that you didn't reach through Google. If you use Gmail, they know the content of every email you've ever sent or received, whether you've deleted it or not."

This sort of data collection is a worry for many users, particularly after news of Google's hack in China hit the Web, Marlinspike says.

"That kind of news increases the importance of tools, like GoogleSharing, given that it adds weight to the speculation of Google running automated intercept systems for law enforcement," Marlinspike says. "Even if you trust Google and the U.S. government with your information, collecting that much data in one place is just going to be an increasingly attractive target for hackers and foreign governments. And the hackers always win."

GoogleSharing is designed to prevent Google from collecting information about users from services that don't require a login, the site says. Once set up, it works just like regular Google searching, without requiring the use of a special site.

The GoogleSharing system consists of a custom proxy and a Firefox add-on, the site says. The proxy works by generating a pool of GoogleSharing "identities," each of which contains a cookie issued by Google and an arbitrary user agent for one of several popular browsers. The Firefox add-on watches for requests to Google services from your browser, then redirects them to a GoogleSharing proxy. There the request is stripped of all identifying information and replaced with the information from a GoogleSharing identity.

"The GoogleShared request is then forwarded on to Google, and the response is proxied back to you," the site says. "Your next request will get a different identity, and the one you were using before will be assigned to someone else. By 'sharing' these identities, all of our traffic gets mixed together and is very difficult to analyze."

Robert Hansen, CEO of consulting firm SecTheory and a well-known researcher, says GoogleSharing is a good idea, but could be limited in its impact.

"I think it's potentially a fine service for those who are only concerned about search," he says. "Unfortunately, there are a lot of other products in this space that Google could use to track their users that GoogleSharing explicitly says they do not attempt to proxy."

Some users could also be worried about using a service developed by Marlinspike, who has done "most of the man-in-the-middle [hacking] research of note," Hansen observes. "The person paranoid enough about Google watching them is going to also be paranoid about the guy who does man-in-the-middle research watching them, too," Hansen says.

Some corporations also frown on the use of anonymizing proxies, which might obscure information they collect about employees' use of the Internet while at work, experts observe.

In light of the recent hacks in China, however, Hansen praised GoogleSharing for helping to raise consciousness about potential threats to Google and its users.

"I, for one, am really glad guys like Moxie are starting to put focus on how dangerous Google's databases are," Hansen says.

Have a comment on this story? Please click "Discuss" below. If you'd like to contact Dark Reading's editors directly, send us a message.

Tim Wilson is Editor in Chief and co-founder of Dark Reading.com, UBM Tech's online community for information security professionals. He is responsible for managing the site, assigning and editing content, and writing breaking news stories. Wilson has been recognized as one ... View Full Bio

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