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Googling Security 142

brothke writes "It has been suggested that if one was somehow able to change history so that aspirin had never been discovered until now, it would have died in the lab and stand no chance of FDA approval. Similarly, if we knew the power that Google would have in 2008 with its ability to aggregate and correlate personal data, it is arguable that various regulatory and privacy bodies would never allow it to exist given the extensive privacy issues." Read below for the rest of Ben's review.
Googling Security: How Much Does Google Know About You?
author Greg Conti
pages 360
publisher Addison-Wesley Professional
rating 9
reviewer Ben Rothke
ISBN 978-0321518668
summary Explores the many security risks around Google and other search engines
In a fascinating and eye-opening new book Googling Security: How Much Does Google Know About You?, author Greg Conti explores the many security risks around Google and other search engines. Part of the problem is that in the rush to get content onto the web, organizations often give short shrift to the security and privacy of their data. At the individual level, those who make use of the innumerable and ever expanding amount of Google free services can end up paying for those services with their personal information being compromised, or shared in ways they would not truly approve of; but implicitly do so via their acceptance of the Google Terms of Service.

While the book focuses specifically on Google, the security issues detailed are just as relevant to Yahoo, MSN, AOL, Ask and the more than 50 other search engines.

My friend and SEO guru Shimon Sandler has a blog around search engine optimization (SEO). In the over three years that his blog has been around, my recent post on The Need for Security in SEO was the first on the topic of SEO security. Similar SEO blogs have a very low number (and often no) articles on SEO and security. Sandler notes that when he mentions privacy issues around search to his clients, it is often the first time they have thought of it.

The book opens with the observation that Google's business model is built on the prospect of providing its services for free. From the individual user's perspective, this is a model that they can live with. But the inherent risk is that the services really are not completely free; they come at the cost of the loss of control of one's personal information that they share with Google.

The book lists over 50 Google services and applications which collect personal information. From mail, alerts, blogging, news, desktop, images, maps, groups, video and more. People are placing a great deal of trust into Google as each time they use a Google service, they are trusting the organization to safeguard their personal information. In chapter 5, the book lists over 20 stated uses and advantages of Google Groups, and the possible information disclosure risks of each.

In the books 10 chapters, the author provides a systematic overview of how Google gets your personal data and what it does with it. In chapter 3, the book details how disparate pieces of data can be aggregated and mined to create extremely detailed user profiles. These profiles are invaluable to advertisers who will pay Google dearly for such meticulous user data. This level of personal data aggregation was impossible to obtain just a few years ago, given the lack of computing power, combined with the single point of user data. The book notes that this level of personalization, while golden to advertisers, is a privacy anathema.

Chapter 6 is particularly interesting in that it details the risks of using Google Maps. Conti explains that the privacy issue via the use of Google Maps is that it combines disclosure risks of search and connects it to mapping. You are now sharing geographic locations and the associated interactions. By clicking on a link in a Google map, the user discloses and strengthens the link between the search they performed and what they deemed as important in the result. By aggregating source IP addresses and destinations searches, Google can easily ascertain confidential data.

After detailing over 250 pages of the risks of Google and related services, Chapter 9 is about countermeasures. Short of simply not using the services, the book notes that there is no clear solution for protecting yourself and company from web-based information disclosure. Nonetheless, the chapter lists a number of things that can be done to reduce the threat. Some are easier, some are harder; but they can ultimately add up to a significant layer of protection. Chapter 9 details 11 specific steps that help users appreciate the magnitude of their disclosures and make informed decisions about which search services to use.

Googling Security: How Much Does Google Know About You? is an important book given that far too many people do not realize how much personal information they are disclosing on a daily basis. An important point that the book makes is that small information disclosures are not truly small when they are aggregated over the course of years. Advances in data mining and artificial intelligence are magnifying the importance of the threat, all under the guise of improving the end-user experience. The book emphasizes the need to evaluate the short-term computing gains with the long-term privacy losses.

The final chapter notes that apathy is the enemy. As a user becomes aware of the magnitude of the threat, they will see it grow every day. But the next step is to take action. Be it with technical countermeasures, taking your business where privacy is better supported, or petitioning lawmakers.

As to the underlying question, "how much does Google know about you?", the answer is that it is a colossal amount, far more than most people realize. For anyone who uses the Internet, Googling Security should be on their list of required reading. The risks that Google and other search engines present are of great consequence and can't be overlooked. If not, privacy could slowly be a thing of the past.

Ben Rothke is the author of Computer Security: 20 Things Every Employee Should Know.

You can purchase Googling Security: How Much Does Google Know About You? from Slashdot welcomes readers' book reviews -- to see your own review here, read the book review guidelines, then visit the submission page.


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Googling Security

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  • Aspirin? (Score:4, Interesting)

    by jollyreaper ( 513215 ) on Wednesday November 12, 2008 @12:18PM (#25734491)

    Are they saying that aspirin is so simple and helpful that Big Pharma never would have allowed it on the market or would have it tied up in all sorts of patents? But the comparison makes it sound like aspirin is harmful, seeing as Google is portrayed as more powerful than we would have let happen if we knew the future in advance.

    And who would have stopped Google from doing what they did? That's like saying "If people knew what Microsoft would become, they would have stopped it." Huh? If people knew who John Wayne Gacy would become they would have stopped him except they couldn't because they didn't know.

  • by Roland Piquepaille ( 780675 ) on Wednesday November 12, 2008 @12:25PM (#25734593)

    Forget the what-if-we-knew-x-years-ago supposition : why does nobody - no regulatory body that is - demand that Google explain exactly what data they collect and what the heck they do with it?

    Really, it seems that, since they started out saying "do no evil", everybody took their word for it and let it go at that. Google is worth billions, reaches millions worldwide, provides dozens of services people have come to rely on, and yet no-one knows what they do exactly, aside from banalities such as "their business model is selling ads". Heck, even Microsoft is under 100x more intense scrutiny than Google...

    I like and use Google services as much as the next guy, but their ultra-secretive habits make me very wary of them.

  • by ACK!! ( 10229 ) on Wednesday November 12, 2008 @12:26PM (#25734595) Journal

    My grandparents refused I remember a long time ago to give out their Social Security Number to anyone.

    I remember when you put your credit card onto the manual machine and then made sure to get the carbons.

    For the luxury of convenience we have given up our security our anonynimity in not just the digital world but the world at large.

    And for this price we get one-click shopping and online bill paying and such. But when the waiter swipes you card # it all comes back to you.

    And am I any better than anyone else in this regard ? No. Not really.

  • by epine ( 68316 ) on Wednesday November 12, 2008 @12:30PM (#25734665)

    The premise here is "if only we had known ahead of time, we would have done things differently". In the cases where we did know ahead of time, or enough people did, we still went ahead and did it anyway. *After* the Grand Banks fishery collapsed ... we continued to fish it. A few short years later ... we shut down the entire fishery due to lack of foresight and cooperation.

    For some reason, I've never viewed Google as a particularly large threat. They seem to be using the data mining to sell a well targeted audience. Is there a Google service where I can pay to get dirt on my neighbors? There's two guys living out front I'd like to get rid of.

    Like a bank, there is a business model to make a lot of money in a hurry by whisking all the deposits off to an island paradise. However, the business model where they maintaining the trust relationship with the fools who deposited in the first place pays better in the long run. When you get down to it, banks sell trust, and not much else.

    Do we think our banks don't know a lot about us? If only we had known, we'd have never allowed banks to exist in the first place.

    What's happening here is that with mass storage plummeting into the $/TB range, one way or another we were going to have to rethink our entire privacy and public information models rather dramatically.

    If only we had known, we'd have never allowed Shugart to spin that first platter.

  • Bogus (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Xerolooper ( 1247258 ) on Wednesday November 12, 2008 @12:39PM (#25734755)

    aspirin had never been discovered until now, it would have died in the lab and stand no chance of FDA approval

    This argument is such a fallacy. If it was discovered today it would be considered an herbal supplement and they are not regulated by the FDA. If it was considered a drug patent trolls would sue for it and it would still get marketed since it does work with little side effects. They would see the potential to make a lot of money.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday November 12, 2008 @12:44PM (#25734819)

    How long before the DoJ starts down this path by saying, "hey Google, why don't you keep an eye on suspicious searches for us, and let us know if someone reaches a threshold of $X searches/month so we can see if they're bad dudes banging little kids."

    Under the PATRIOT Act, any FBI officer could ask for this data, with a self written warrant, Google would be compelled to give them the information, AND IT WOULD BE ILLEGAL FOR GOOGLE TO TELL ANYONE ABOUT IT... EVEN UNDER OATH IN A COURT OF LAW.

    So, this could already be happening I guess.

  • by megamerican ( 1073936 ) on Wednesday November 12, 2008 @01:04PM (#25735047)

    It has been admitted that the PATRIOT ACT was written before 9/11. Most of it was seperate bills that failed during the Clinton administration and that most Republicans opposed at the time. Funny how things "change" when you get into power.

    Lawrence Lessig, a Law Professor from Stanford University told an audience at this years Fortune's Brainstorm Tech conference in Half Moon Bay, California, that "There's going to be an i-9/11 event" which will act as a catalyst for a radical reworking of the law pertaining to the internet.

    Lessig also revealed that he had learned, during a dinner with former government Counter Terrorism Czar Richard Clarke, that there is already in existence a cyber equivalent of the Patriot Act, an "i-Patriot Act" if you will, and that the Justice Department is waiting for a cyber terrorism event in order to implement its provisions.

    During a group panel segment titled "2018: Life on the Net", Lessig stated:

    There's going to be an i-9/11 event. Which doesn't necessarily mean an Al Qaeda attack, it means an event where the instability or the insecurity of the internet becomes manifest during a malicious event which then inspires the government into a response. You've got to remember that after 9/11 the government drew up the Patriot Act within 20 days and it was passed.

    The Patriot Act is huge and I remember someone asking a Justice Department official how did they write such a large statute so quickly, and of course the answer was that it has been sitting in the drawers of the Justice Department for the last 20 years waiting for the event where they would pull it out.

    Of course, the Patriot Act is filled with all sorts of insanity about changing the way civil rights are protected, or not protected in this instance. So I was having dinner with Richard Clarke and I asked him if there is an equivalent, is there an i-Patriot Act just sitting waiting for some substantial event as an excuse to radically change the way the internet works. He said "of course there is".

    You can find that talk on google video.

    On a flu related note, the google flu tracker really scares me. I pointed out in the discussion about it that Executive Order 13375 adds

    (c) Influenza caused by novel or reemergent influenza viruses that are causing, or have the potential to cause, a pandemic

    to Executive Order 13295 Relating to Certain Influenza Viruses and Quarantinable Communicable Diseases.

    That simply means that our government can pre-emptively quarantine an area that may cause a pandemic. The language "reemergent" is also troubling to me since it has been admitted that they have recreated the 1918 flu virus.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday November 12, 2008 @01:08PM (#25735115)

    You know, all the tools and information available to advertisers from google is documented in abundance. It's called AdWords (advertise for keywords on google or content sites) and AdSense (host ads on your content site). The ads for any given search query or AdSense page are ranked in an auction based on an advertisers bid multiplied by a "quality score" (clickthrough and a bunch of other "quality" fudge factors). Here [] is an article on google's ads group. Note that advertisers call it a "black box"; for users that is a good thing, and tends to refute the common idea that google is selling out super-detailed user profiles to advertisers.

    If people want to continue speculating about what google *could* be computing, or what it is sharing with advertisers, go wild I guess. But since advertisers or normal people too, the information is out there. After learning about how web ads actually work in the last year or so, it's been worrisome for me to see how few people actually know how web advertising works, even though it underpins the funding for the modern web.

    The financial institutions that I use have much scarier data on me than google gathers, even though I use many google products. That's because credit card history, bills, pay stubs, and withdrawals now all go through your bank, with strong links to your identity. Both google and my bank could be joining and computing all sorts of scary stuff -- but no matter how you try, you can't really control what some group can compute about you when they have the data. What you can control, and what I'd argue is more important, is what they release to others. Just like my bank is limited in who and what it can release, we need that kind of privacy policy (or legislation) for online companies. People seem to be preoccupied with chasing the bogeyman though, rather than thinking what kind of lasting change that'd make the system work.

  • Scroogled (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Brass Cannon ( 882254 ) on Wednesday November 12, 2008 @01:27PM (#25735411)
    There is actually a great short story about the idea of Google using its collected information for Homeland Security. The story is called "Scroogled". Good read. I'd link to it but I thought it more appropriate to have you Google the title.
  • by gonz ( 13914 ) on Wednesday November 12, 2008 @01:40PM (#25735593)

    People assume that Google uses your private information in indirect, anonymous ways to improve advertising or predict general trends from keyword histograms. But have you looked at Google's privacy policy?

    "We restrict access to personal information to Google employees, contractors and agents who need to know that information in order to operate, develop or improve our services." []

    It basically says they use your data to improve their services and to develop new services. It's clear that Google aims to eventually get into just about every possible industry, so their "services" are very broadly defined.

    As far as I can tell, there is nothing in the privacy policy that says Google will not directly data-mine your Gmails and Google Docs. There is no limit to what's possible if you have a huge searchable index of everybody's private data. Here are some examples of how Google might choose to "operate, develop, or improve" their services:

    - get trading tips for any financial market by searching people's private Gmail conversations or corporate Google Docs
    - search for discussions/documents relating to inventions, then premptively patent the idea
    - detect DNS names that people are brainstorming, and then preemptively squat on these domains
    - predict when a limited item is going to be popular, then buy up those products and sell them at higher price on e-bay
    - use private discussions to predict locations of possible terrorist attacks and sell this information to the military
    - search people's e-mails or documents for illicit material or copyright infringement, maybe under a government order
    - use your company's internal documents to directly compete with your company

    To the extent that they're legal, these ideas are totally compatible with Google's privacy policy as I read it.

    Individual people willingly publish their private information on the internet every day. But I have NO IDEA why a business would ever consider entrusting its private data to one of the biggest, broadest competitor companies in the world. Gmail and Google Docs are a big data mining bait.


  • Your choice (Score:3, Interesting)

    by gmuslera ( 3436 ) on Wednesday November 12, 2008 @01:51PM (#25735741) Homepage Journal
    3 main ways to google to get info about you:
    - You publish that information in your site (i.e. you give it to everyone, google included)
    - You give that information to google (i.e. you store your mail/documents/etc in google, or interact with your google account with google sites, like in maps, search history, etc)
    - You interact with google sites not with your account, but interact anyways. That could include google ads, or the search engine itself (even if is embedded in your browser), or visiting sites using google analytics.

    In the first two is your choice to give them your information. And if the last one worries you, using alternative search engines or using extensions like NoScript will solve that problem.

    The problem with google is that give you too much ways, most of them very handy, to store your information, and is in very good positions to combine all that sources. You can pick all yahoo services and be in more or less the same situation, but in yahoo. Or in lesser degree, can fall in the same with Microsoft, Facebook, your mail provider, etc(even slashdot could fit in that category eventually)
  • Re:Aspirin? (Score:1, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday November 12, 2008 @03:31PM (#25737389)

    But the comparison makes it sound like aspirin is harmful,

    It can sometimes be harmful in high doses, but the real reason is that it never would have passed animal testing trials.

    You see, aspirin kills Guinea pigs dead, fast, even in low doses.

    Disclaimer: I am a Pharmacist.

  • by blahplusplus ( 757119 ) * on Wednesday November 12, 2008 @11:11PM (#25742393)

    ... as it is today.

    Privacy can't really be protected, it's an illusion. If my neighborhood has webcams pointing out their window at my house or appartment can I stop them? If someone is dedicated enough or well funded enough, they can find out much about you simply since by existing and interacting with society you leave 'breadcrumb' traces of yourself everywhere you go. Anytime you make any kind of economic transaction via electronic means that is recorded, even if you use money, camera's inside the store are recording your habits.

    Why does no one complain about being recorded inside a supermarket for instance? Why is it acceptable, when over the years people can study it and research it and deduce things about you? Google just makes the process convenient and slightly easier, the lack of privacy has always been there whenever you enter into stores, shops and malls. If google needs to have data requested, why don't all corporations who record and monitor people over a long time also not need to be queried about their data?

    As you can see the scope and financial undertaking of being consistent would be fairly large, and I doubt you'd get much out of it.

Can anyone remember when the times were not hard, and money not scarce?