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Risk

7/31/2007
05:50 AM
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Google Desktop: Too Risky?

Recently-exposed vulnerabilities leave many IT experts feeling queasy about using the search engine's latest feature

A few months ago, the press revealed a potentially serious security flaw inside Google’s Desktop search engine. And, according to new research that my company will be publishing later this week, a lot of IT and security professionals are worried enough that they're curtailing their use of the new Google feature.

The Google Desktop tool allows users to catalog and search the contents of their desktop computers, along with their Web-wide Google searches, to create a single, integrated results page. The idea is to give the reader a way to search all of the data available, both on their machines and across the Internet.

However, the very integration between Google’s Desktop application and its Web search engine mays create security vulnerabilities, including an opportunity for attackers to employ "man-in-the-middle" exploits on the end user’s computer.

According to researcher Robert Hansen (a.k.a. RSnake), CEO of SecTheory LLC , a man-in-the-middle attack against Google’s Desktop could enable a bad guy to get between Google and someone launching a desktop search query. From this position, the attacker is able to manipulate the search results, possibly allowing him to take control of the machine or install other programs on the desktop.

Another security research firm identified a cross-site scripting vulnerability in Google Desktop that would allow an attacker to place malicious code on an end user's computer, and possibly take full control. Google says it has fixed this flaw.

My first reactions to these reports were surprise, concern, and disbelief – Google is trusted by so many people for its privacy and information ethics. In our recent study, "Most Trusted Companies for Privacy," Google ranked tenth out of more than 200 leading companies among U.S. consumers.

Although I am a loyal user of Google, I started to wonder if Desktop was safe enough for me to use on my PC –- especially given my cautious nature about privacy. Beyond security of my laptop, could a feature called "search across computers" cause vulnerabilities if used within my company’s network, including the potential leakage of our intellectual property or business confidential information?

As a researcher, I thought my concerns warranted a study about this issue. We surveyed knowledgeable IT and security practitioners about how they perceive the security flaws revealed in the press. Specifically, we wanted to learn if the alleged vulnerabilities were perceived as media hype against the successful Google – or a real threat to computer users.

In June, we conducted a Web-based study of more than 1,000 IT and security pros. The following is a summary of the seven research questions we asked, and the corresponding results.

1. Are you aware of the security controversy concerning Google Desktop?

Over 60 percent said they were aware of the problem.

2. Do you agree with Hansen that the integration of PC search results and Web search results creates a security problem for Google Desktop?

Among respondents who were aware of the Google Desktop issue, about 66 percent said they agree that integration between Desktop and Web searches could create an opportunity for a man-in-the-middle attack.

3. In your opinion, has Google resolved the cross-site scripting attack issue or is Google Desktop still vulnerable to new attacks?

Over 71 percent said they believe that Google’s Desktop is still vulnerable to new cross-site scripting attacks, despite Google’s assurances that this problem was corrected.

4. Do you believe that antivirus software defends computers against these cross-site scripting attacks, or are Google Desktop users at risk, even if they keep their antivirus software up to date?

About 56 percent of respondents believe that antivirus software does not defend computers against cross-site scripting attacks.

5. Does the transfer of data outside the enterprise using a feature called "search across computers" create an unacceptable security risk for an organization?

About 74 percent of subjects said yes. Only 16 percent said no. Eleven percent said they weren't sure.

6. In your opinion, should users with confidential or legally protected data such as legal, medical or educational records avoid using Google Desktop with the "search across computers" functionality?

Over 83 percent of subjects said yes. Approximately 10 percent said no, and 6 percent were unsure.

7. Based on your knowledge about the above issues, would you use Google Desktop?

About 51 percent of subjects said no. Twenty-seven percent weren't sure. Only 23 percent said yes. Of those who said yes, 89 percent said they believe their security tools protect them from the threat. Eighty-five percent said they aren't worried about the Google Desktop threat.

There are inherent limitations to our survey. First, the current findings are based on a sample of returned surveys. It is always possible that individuals who did not participate have substantially different views from those who completed it. Second, there is a possibility that some of the respondents weren't qualified to answer the survey. Third, we used Web-based collection methods, and it is possible that non-Web responses (e.g., mailed surveys or personal interviews) would result in a different pattern of findings.

Yet, while these findings are only preliminary, I believe they suggest there is the potential for alarm – especially among non-technical users of desktop search tools and comparable “free” Internet products.

So what's the bottom line? I believe it is incumbent on market leaders like Google to continue to take steps to ensure that products are safe and secure – before making them available to the public. Admittedly, there is no such thing as a security guarantee -– especially when using a free service like Desktop. But ultimately, the user needs to know the risks before making a choice about which services to use.

If you have questions or would like to see the report, please contact [email protected].

— Larry Ponemon is founder and CEO of Ponemon Institute LLC . Special to Dark Reading

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