The beta of the just-released Google Desktop has some problems, but a much-hyped privacy invasion isn’t one of them.
The Google Desktop, released last week, is one of the best pieces of free software you’ll ever find. It tries to do for your PC what Google does for the Web, and although it only partially succeed, it’s still a spectacularly useful piece of software.
But the biggest public complaint so far - that it presents a privacy risk - is overhyped, and to my mind, a bogus argument.
Because the software can index Web sites that you visit with your PC, there are those who have noted that if the software runs on a public computer, such as at an Internet cafe, and you use that computer to check your email on a Web-based service such as Hotmail, that any user of that computer will be able to read your email by doing a Google search of the computer’s hard disk.
But how likely is it that you’ll use a public PC running the software? Not very. And how likely that a stray passerby will somehow know your user name and search for it? Less likely still.
And in fact, there’s a very simple fix - if you’re at a public PC, turn off the software before checking your email. Right-click the Google Desktop icon in the System Tray, and choose Exit. That’s all it takes - it won’t index any site you visit. You can also right-click the icon, and choose Pause Indexing, and it won’t index for the next fifteen minutes. And you can keep doing that indefinitely. Again, problem fixed.
Of course, this isn’t to say that the software doesn’t need to fix some things. It does.
To help you understand what’s wrong with it, you first need to know what it can do. It indexes your Outlook or Outlook Express email, text files, Word, Excel and PowerPoint files, AOL Instant Messenger conversations, and Web pages you’ve visited in Internet Explorer. Then it lets you search through them lightning fast, and displays them Google-style in your browser. (For advice on how to hack it, see Rael Dornfest’s article, Google Your Desktop.)
That’s well and good, but it doesn’t allow you to search through your Outlook email by folders, a serious oversight. It also doesn’t let you search through your Outlook contacts or calendar. This makes no sense; it indexes .pst files, so while it’s there, it might as well do a bit more in-depth indexing.
Because it uses the Google model of searching, it doesn’t allow you to do some very basic searching, such as searching only specific directories on your PC. You also can’t restrict it from indexing specific Outlook folders, which means that it indexes all mail routed to your spam folder as well.
There are also other problems - people have reported that it takes literally days to index their hard disk, and that the software makes Windows sluggish at times.
Despite this, I use Google Desktop at least a dozen times a day. So I hope that some of it gets fixed when it’s out of beta. But I’m not worried at all about it invading my privacy, no matter where I compute.
Have you used Google Desktop? What do you think of it? Does it invade your privacy?