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Google Chrome Privacy Issues Prompts Plea To Google Execs

By INFORMATION WEEK

Tue, Nov 4, 2008 at 1:00 pm

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Chief among the group’s complaints is Google Suggest, a
feature found in Chrome and other Google applications like Google
Toolbar.

In an effort to publicize what it claims are the privacy failings of Google’s new Chrome browser, Consumer Watchdog is airing its grievances through Google’s YouTube
and urging viewers to use its e-mail form to submit a message to
Google’s board of directors demanding better privacy protection.

Google’s new Chrome browser presents a privacy risk for
consumers, the consumer advocacy group contends, because it sends
information about users’ searches "without users’ full understanding,
consent or control."

Google launched its open source Chrome browser, now in its third beta iteration (version 0.3.154.9), in early September to provide a better experience and better security for browser-based applications.

Chrome’s Incognito mode, like Microsoft Internet Explorer 8 Beta
2′s InPrivate mode and Apple Safari’s Private Browsing mode, creates a
window in which, as Google puts it, nothing "is ever logged on your computer."

Consumer Watchdog argues that Chrome’s Incognito mode does not confer
the privacy that the mode’s name suggests and that Chrome’s blurring of
local and remote computing "creates confusion in the consumer’s mind
about the privacy and security of confidential information."

Chief among the group’s complaints is Google Suggest, a feature
found in Chrome and other Google applications like Google Toolbar. It
is effectively a keystroke logger than sends every character typed to
Google. Google uses this information to provide search suggestions that
it refines with every subsequent letter.

Google doesn’t see the harm in this. "Just as E.T. needs to
phone home in order to get a spaceship to pick him up, Google Suggest
needs to talk to Google while you type in order to offer suggestions to
you," the company explains on its Web site. "Everything you type, though, is protected by Google’s privacy policy."

Earlier this month, Consumer Watchdog in a letter urged the U.S.
Department of Justice to reject Google’s proposed advertising deal with
Yahoo. The group cited the lack of user control over Google’s data
collection, particularly through Chrome, as the impetus for its
opposition to the deal.

Now the organization wants the various State Attorneys General
to force Google to let consumers choose to use its services
anonymously.

"Google’s role is now unprecedented because the Internet goliath is no
longer merely collecting some data about how we search and surf the
Web," said Consumer Watchdog president Jamie Court in a statement. "Its
new browser and software are actually sending information from inside
our computers to its servers. If Google won’t solve its own privacy
problems, the company must be prepared for regulators to put the brakes
on its unprecedented growth. State Attorneys General need to take
action to protect consumers’ privacy and make sure that computer users
have the ability to opt-out of Google’s web and browse anonymously."
The group wants Google to affix a single prominent button on the main
Chrome page that allows the user to enter Incognito mode instantly and
to maintain Incognito mode through subsequent sessions until the user
chooses to revert to unprotected browsing.

It wants Google users to have a way to extend the Incognito
mode to avoid sending information to Google when searching or invoking
another action that transmits data.

And it wants Incognito mode to actually hide the user’s
identity with a default SSL connection, automatic IP anonymization,
invisibility to all Google servers including Google Analytics, and the
termination of auto-saving, of search suggestions and of external calls
to desktop apps and plug-ins related to browsing.

"You should provide the privacy the name implies or stop calling it Incognito mode," the group said in its letter to Google’s board.

In response to Consumer Watchdog’s complaint, Google said in an e-mailed statement that the organization has misunderstood its products and practices.
Google said it only stores 2% of requests received through Google
Suggest, that it anonymizes the IP address of received Suggest data
within 24 hours, and that users can turn Suggest off by visiting the
Chrome Options menu and clicking the Manage button.

Incognito, according to Google’s statement, is intended to
prevent information from being left on the user’s computer. It is not,
in other words, an anonymization service. Google also said that
Incognito does not default to SSL (Secure Sockets Layer) "because these
connections are provided by Web sites, not browsers, so it is
technologically impossible for Google Chrome to behave this way."

The company said that while it disagreed with Consumer
Watchdog’s video and letter, it remains open to user feedback,
particularly with regard to Chrome as it progresses through beta
testing.

If you haven’t seen Chrome in action yet, take a spin through our Google Chrome image gallery and have a look at the browser that’s being touted as a game-changer.

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