Online searches may pose security threats

Government agencies may be risking disclosure of sensitive data through desktop and Internet search functions, according to a report from the Civitas Group consulting firm in Washington, D.C.

Civitas examined Google Desktop Search and Search Across Computers, both part of the Google Desktop application. They allow users to search for documents on their computers, internal networks and the Internet.

Civitas found the technologies are powerful and capable, but also introduce risks of unauthorized disclosure of information and legal liability. Some of the risks occur because by enabling Search Across Computers, the user allows desktop data to be uploaded automatically to Google servers via the Web, raising the possibility of interception by a third-party hacker, Civitas said.

Several public agencies and academic institutions have warned users of those risks already, while others are just becoming aware of them.

"In the U.S. context, the use of Search Across Computers by state government employees has led states to examine the use of SAC as it relates to state code and to issue warnings about its use and potential liability," Civitas said. "Transmission to Google servers of proscribed data has the potential to run up against state laws that generally prohibit agencies from disclosing a resident's private records to third parties absent consent and from disclosing certain classes of official government information, such as grand jury materials and evidence."

A survey of 544 government IT leaders in July 2007, performed by the Ponemon Institute, showed that 61 percent were aware of vulnerabilities associated with Google Desktop Search.

Furthermore, 78 percent of those surveyed said Search Across Computers and its transfer of data outside the enterprise creates an unacceptable security risk, according to the report.

Civitas recommends better strategic planning, auditing, training and other measures to reduce and control the risks.

Google officials have addressed some of the known vulnerabilities; however, some risks still remain, Civitas said.

Google has put in controls that allow administrators to monitor and prevent unauthorized data disclosure, said Matthew Glotzbach, Google's product management director for core enterprise products. An administrator can disable Search Across Computers across a network, for example, he said.

"We take security and data privacy very seriously," Glotzbach said. "There are risks, but there are controls that make it easy for administrators to protect against those risks."

About the Author

Alice Lipowicz is a staff writer covering government 2.0, homeland security and other IT policies for Federal Computer Week.

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