Google Shuts Hole in Desktop Product
A potentially devastating hole in Google Inc.'s prevalent desktop search product
could have exposed personal files on users' computers to data thieves. Google
fixed the defect within weeks of being informed about it and says it has no evidence
the vulnerability was exploited.
The flaw was uncovered late last year by Watchfire Corp., a security-analysis
provider. While the vulnerability exists in roughly 80 percent of Web applications,
this problem appeared far more extreme "given the sensitive nature of what
Google Desktop is doing," said Danny Allan, a researcher at Waltham, Mass.-based
Google's free desktop product, first released in 2004, has millions of users
and remains popular. Internet tracker Hitwise says visits to http://desktop.google.com
tripled in January.
The system lets users set Google's indexing and searching capabilities loose
on their own computers in addition to the Web. The service offers a fast, easy
way to find documents, e-mails, instant-messaging transcripts, archived Web
pages and other tidbits socked away on PCs. A Google executive once described
it as "the photographic memory of your computer."
The Watchfire researchers discovered, however, that the setup was open to something
known as a cross-site scripting attack, which lets an attacker place malicious
code on a Google Desktop user's computer. The PC could be infected a number
of ways, including an infected e-mail attachment.
From that instant, a hacker would have had free reign to use Google Desktop
to search the victim's machine -- or multiple compromised machines at once --
and possibly to take full control of the computer, according to Watchfire. Watchfire's
founder and chief technical officer, Mike Weider, said the attack would have
gone undetected by firewalls or anti-virus software.
Watchfire said it reported the security hole to Google on Jan. 4 and was assured
Feb. 1 that the flaw had been fixed. Google spokesman Barry Schnitt said the
desktop search software gets automatically updated, so users do not need to
take any steps to protect themselves.
While this particular avenue for data theft has been shut down, Watchfire contends
that another one could emerge because Google maintains a link between desktop
and Web data -- a query on a computer with Google Desktop can show search results
from both realms.
"There's a high potential for this to happen again," Weider said.
However, Schnitt responded in an e-mail that Google has "taken many steps
to protect our users and mitigate such attacks."
"We've added an additional layer of security checks to prevent the types
of attacks pointed out by Watchfire and future possible attacks through this
vector as well," he wrote.
No matter whether such a threat re-emerges through Google, Allan expects to
see similar vulnerabilities increase overall, "as desktop software and
the Internet get more connected." As a result, he said, anti-virus vendors
should develop techniques for detecting and blocking such attacks.