The Smart Paranoid's Guide to Using Google

Google is nearly everyone's best friend. But have you ever stopped to think about just how much Google knows about you?

Do you realize that Google may have recorded and stored every single search term you have ever punched into its search box? Chances are some of those searches could be soberingly damaging to your reputation. What about Gmail? Have you ever sent any sensitive e-mails? How about business information stored in Google Docs?

Unless you sat out the last decade offline, you've likely been building a pretty thorough profile of yourself on Google Inc.'s servers. Depending on which of the dozens of Google services you use, data about your habits, interests, activities, schedule, professional pursuits, stock portfolio and medical history could be sitting somewhere on Google's servers -- along with records of the trip routes you've mapped, the Web sites you've visited and much more.

The good news is that Google anonymizes its server logs by removing the last three digits from the IP addresses associated with searches after nine months and by deleting the associated cookies after 18 months, which makes it very difficult to link you to searches that are more than 18 months old.

That's still a pretty big window into your life, though. What if any or all of that data ever became public? An attacker could conceivably get access to your information on Google by hacking directly into its servers, or by hacking into your individual account.

"There is a huge amount of stuff on Google," says Gartner Research VP Jay Heiser, "and it would be naive to believe that all that information wasn't of huge interest to a wide variety of people."

What's more, the large number of services Google offers means there are multiple ways of accessing data. "Each service brings its own unique risks," says Heiser. "There's potential for a minor vulnerability in one to add up to a more significant vulnerability when combined with something else."

And criminals aren't the only ones who could potentially access your Google records. Should the government (or attorneys from a legal suit you're involved with) come calling, all it takes is a simple subpoena and Google is forced to turn over your information, as outlined in Google's Privacy Policy.

Bottom line? Big Brother knows a whole lot more than you probably thought. But you don't have to avoid Google to keep yourself reasonably safe. You just need to take steps to prevent potentially dangerous information from being stored on Google's servers in the first place, and to protect the integrity of your account.

By taking some basic -- and not-so-basic -- precautions, you can minimize your exposure to bad guys, wherever and whoever they are. Read on to learn about things you can do to minimize the security risks involved in using Google, whether for search or for one of its myriad other online services.

[ Also see: 8 New Privacy Threats Explained ]

Artwork: Chip Taylor
For good measure, we've included two levels of advice on how you can protect yourself:

* "Defcon 2" (good security) tips are things you can do with the tools already at your disposal to keep yourself safe against typical attacks -- but not against a determined attacker.

* "Defcon 1" (best security) tips -- a.k.a. "the celebrity solution" (steps to take if you have, or intend to have, a highly visible public profile) -- offer far more security but are far less practical and often require using third-party tools.

In the end, only you can determine what trade-offs between security and convenience make sense for you.

Risk 1: Search Data and Metadata

If you visit Google's Web History page, you can see every single Google search you've run, while signed into your Google account, for years. And it's not limited to text searches -- you can also see your history of Google image searches, Google video searches, Google Maps searches and so on. This data is stored by default; users must activate Web History to access it.

Google's Web History can show you searches going back years.

Google uses this information for a number of benign purposes, such as fine-tuning its search algorithms and determining wider patterns in Web searches for its Google Trends page. But however useful it is to the company, it's probably a safe bet that you don't want anyone to see every search you've ever done.

Defcon 2

The simplest thing you can do to prevent the accumulation of search data is to make sure you're logged out of your Google account before searching. If you're logged in, your e-mail address will show up in the upper right-hand corner of Google's home page, search results pages or any Google Web page you're on.

Also, turn off Google's Web History. From the upper-right corner of Google's home page, choose Settings --> Google Account settings, click "Edit" next to "My Products" in the left-middle of the page, and click "Remove Web History permanently." (If you don't see this option, it means you never initially activated Web History.)

This will unsubscribe you from Google's Web History service and erase all the specific data linking your account to your searches from Google's servers. Google will still keep data associating your searches with your IP address for nine months and with other nonpersonal information for 18 months, but this data is not specifically linked to your identity.

However, the Web History service can be of value to individual users, not just to Google. A searchable history of every Web search you've ever run could be a powerful tool for your own use. If you're comfortable with your search data being available in Web History but want to prune a few "incriminating" searches from the list, choose Web History under My Products from your Accounts page and click "Remove Items" in the left-hand menu. This will place a checkbox next to each query in your history; select the ones you want to chuck into the Memory Hole and click "Remove," and they'll be deleted.

You can also click the "Clear entire Web history" link at the bottom of the page to delete your past searches all at once, or "pause" Web History for a while, if you know some of your upcoming searches might be difficult to explain or reveal too much personal information. To put Web History on hold, just click the "Pause" link in the left menu, then click "Resume" to have Web History begin saving your searches again.

Defcon 1

Logging out of Google prevents the direct association of searches with you, but not the searches' association with your IP address and other information such as the operating system and browser used, time and date of the search, and the ID of the cookie saved to your computer for that search. (Google's Privacy FAQ shows a sample log entry.) A determined attacker could conceivably work backward from Google's server logs to discover your identity.

To prevent this, anonymize your Web use by using tools like Tor, Anonymizer or the PhZilla Firefox extension. These tools funnel your Web use through one or more proxies, bouncing from city to city around the world, so your searches cannot be traced directly back to your computer. Be warned, though: Internet surfing is significantly slower when it takes place behind a proxy server.

Risk 2: Tracking Cookies

Google uses cookies to store your log-in status for its various services, so, for instance, you don't have to log into Google Calendar when you're already logged into Gmail. But that means that you're leaving a trail of log-ins that can be accessed both from Google's servers and from your hard disk.

Also, the Google-owned ad service Doubleclick uses cookies to track visitors as they move among sites, and that information, combined with your Google login, can identify exactly what sites you visited.

Defcon 2

Blocking third-party cookies in Safari.

Use your browser's security or privacy settings to reject third-party cookies -- that is, cookies that originate from sources other than the site you're on.

Blocking all cookies can be problematic if you want specific sites to remember your log-in info or preferences. Blocking third-party cookies, on the other hand, won't inconvenience you on most sites but will take your privacy up a notch.

Note that blocking new third-party cookies won't actually get rid of the ones that are already on your system. So to be thorough, you can use your browser's security/privacy settings to either delete all of your current cookies at once -- which means you'll have to re-enter log-in information or preferences at certain sites (but only once) -- or look through your cookies file and manually delete those that aren't from sites whose cookies you want to keep.

However, some services -- notably Doubleclick -- have been able to install cookies even with third-party cookies blocked. You can opt out of Doubleclick's cookies by, ironically, installing an opt-out cookie. But if you clear your cookies file at any time, you might also delete the opt-out cookie. Google provides tools and instructions for making your opt-out preferences permanent in Firefox, Internet Explorer, Chrome and Safari.

Starting an "incognito" browsing session in Chrome.
Another option is to take advantage of your browser's "private browsing" feature. The most recent versions of Firefox, Safari, IE, Opera and Chrome all offer private browsing sessions -- sometimes called "InPrivate" or "incognito" browsing -- that purge cookies and passwords when you close the browser, and also erase your Web history and browser cache.

The only challenge is remembering to select private browsing before you begin a sensitive search.

A private browsing session in Internet Explorer.

Defcon 1

Block scripts and ads entirely. Use an ad blocker such as AdSweep for Firefox, Opera and Chrome or AdblockIE for IE8 to prevent sites from serving ads, including Doubleclick's.

Many ads (including Google AdWords) use JavaScript to load. Blocking scripting in addition to ads is the belt-and-suspenders way of keeping ads from loading and third-party tracking cookies from finding their way onto your system. You can turn off JavaScript and other scripting using your browser's security settings, or use the NoScript extension if you use Firefox.

This will make a huge number of sites unusable, but it will make it much more difficult to track your online behavior. Note that you can add exceptions for sites you trust using the "Trusted Sites" list in IE8 (on the Security tab under Internet Options) or by clicking the NoScript toolbar icon and selecting "Allow" for sites you wish to accept scripting from to restore functionality.

Uncheck the "Enable JavaScript" box to turn off scripting in Firefox.

Next Page...Hackers Guessing Your Log-in.

Risk 3: Hackers Attacking Google

Even if you trust Google as much as you trust your mother, the sheer amount of data the company amasses about your life is daunting -- even more so when you consider what could happen if someone outside of Google managed to get access to Google's servers.

Sound far-fetched? Google's internal networks were breached in December 2009 in a widespread attack known as "Operation Aurora" that resulted in the theft of some Google source code and some (but not all) personal details of at least one Chinese human-rights activist, including his account creation data and e-mail subject lines.

Google may have some of the best minds in the world working to secure its systems, but it's also a big target -- and a potentially big prize -- for hackers. "Companies like Google are under attack because they have so much data about you," says Bill Morrow, CEO of CSIdentity, an Austin-based provider of identity theft protection services. "Instead of getting a little snippet of your life's digital footprint, [attackers] could get your entire profile."

Defcon 2

Use common sense. "If it's absolutely critical intellectual property, don't use [online] services," says Mark Kadrich, CEO of The Security Consortium, a San Jose-based security services provider and research firm.

The same goes for personal information. No system is 100% perfect. If you simply could not recover from a piece of information getting out into the world, then no online service can offer you the level of security you need.

While Google's mechanisms are strong enough to protect against common threats, a determined attacker such as a corporate competitor or a government agent who gains access to your account on Google could conceivably access everything you've entrusted to the company -- including data you didn't even know you were leaving behind.

"You have both very sensitive and less sensitive data under the same log-in credential," says Vatsal Sonecha, vice president of business development and product management at security vendor TriCipher Inc. "An attacker who gets into your account has the keys to the kingdom."

It's up to you to make the distinction between what information can be trusted to Google and what can't.

Defcon 1

Encrypt your e-mail. If you use an e-mail client like Outlook or Thunderbird to access your Gmail account, you can use a product like PGP Corp.'s PGP Desktop Home or its open-source cousin GnuPG to encrypt all of your outgoing e-mail. Or you can use the FireGPG Firefox extension to add encryption to Gmail's Web interface.

Businesses can use tools such as PGP Desktop Corporate on the desktop or one of PGP's server-based products to encrypt all outgoing e-mail at the network level.

You'll have to insist that others send you only encrypted e-mail, though, or all your incoming e-mail will still be in plain text. Unfortunately, there are no equivalent encryption tools for other Google services -- some, like Google Health, encrypt your data, but not all do.

Risk 4: Hackers Guessing Your Log-in

While hacking into Google might be difficult, hacking into your particular Google account probably isn't. Most people use simple, easy-to-remember passwords -- often the same one on dozens of sites -- which means a hacker with some basic information about you could easily crack your account.

If you use a single English-language word as a password, a hacker who knows just your e-mail address can crack your account in a few seconds by using common cracking tools that simply try every word in the dictionary.

And on Google, your password accesses everything, from your medical records on Google Health to your credit card numbers on Google Checkout.

Defcon 2

Use a password management program like KeePass or RoboForm to generate and remember strong passwords (such as W2J@Y*YHzqrkd) that are almost impossible to guess. And change your password regularly -- once a month or more.

Defcon 1

Use multifactor authentication. Using just a password to log into a service gives you only one point of failure: If someone gets your password, you're vulnerable. Multifactor authentication requires you to verify your identity in two or more ways.

"Multifactor authentication is based on using at least two of three things: something you know, something you have and something you are," says TriCipher's Sonecha. A password (something you know) is one factor. Services such as TriCipher's MyOneLogin and MultiFactor Corp.'s SecureAuth limit access by requiring additional verification, such as a VeriSign security token or a file on your computer (something you have) or a fingerprint (something you are).

MyOneLogin offers its secure authorization free for users of Google Apps or, for $3 a month, you can sign up for a service that covers not just your Google account but all of your online activity. You can add Web sites or Web applications from MyOneLogin's vast library, or easily set up applications MyOneLogin doesn't cover yet. (Click "Free Trial" on the home page to get started.)

Risk 5: Hackers Cracking Your Log-in

Even if you have a difficult-to-guess password, a hacker can still gain access to your Google account by getting you to log in through a fraudulent link, or by getting malware onto your computer that installs keylogging software or modifies your hosts file. If your computer has been compromised in that way, you may think you're logging into Google but you're really giving your information to a hacker. Google speculates that this is how the Gmail accounts of several human rights advocates were breached recently.

(Tip: Always pay attention to the URL in your browser before entering sensitive information if you clicked on a link from an e-mail or a third-party page -- if the domain name is wonky or doesn't match where you're supposed to be, it's a clear indicator that someone's trying to dupe you.)

Defcon 2

If you're still using Internet Explorer 6, upgrade immediately. According to security firm Secunia, IE6 has 24 unpatched vulnerabilities -- far more than any other browser commonly in use today. It was an IE6 flaw (that has since been patched) that enabled the December 2009 breach of Google's network. Google plans to drop support for IE6 for many of its services this year.

Beyond that, practice good Internet security behavior: Run anti-malware software on your system (yes, even on Macs); don't click on links in e-mails, even from people you trust (or if you do, pay attention to the URL, as outlined above); don't open attachments you aren't expecting; stay away from shady Web sites (porn, illegal file-transfer or warez sites); and never click on pop-ups, not even to close them (instead, use the keystroke commands Alt-F4 on Windows machines or Command-W on Macs).

Defcon 1

"Sandbox" your browser. Use virtualization software like VMware Player or Parallels Desktop to create a self-contained operating system so that viruses and other malware cannot access your hard drive directly -- and when you're done, trash the session and start a new one from the original disk image. A browser sandbox such as Sandboxie also offers some protection by isolating your browser from the rest of the system.

As Steve Gibson, longtime security researcher and founder of Gibson Research Corp., points out in a Security Now! netcast, neither virtual machines nor browser sandboxes provide complete protection from keyloggers and other malware. But used properly alongside other standard security applications (firewalls and antivirus and anti-malware apps), they can help prevent malware from installing anything on your system.

Sandboxie isolates your browser from the rest of your system.

Final Advice

Finally, take a good, hard look at what you're giving Google and what you're getting in return. "You can no longer be passive about protecting your digital footprint," explains CSIdentity's Morrow. "You need to think of it as if your enemy is in the room, overseeing everything you do. That kind of 'filtering' will lessen not only where you go but what information you're willing to leave behind."

Google may not be your enemy -- now. But a change in management at Google or an acquisition by another company (hey, it could happen) could change that. Even a legal suit could spell trouble if Google gets a subpoena. And individuals within Google's wall of defenses -- a rogue employee, someone with a personal vendetta, or a hacker -- may actually be your enemy. And naturally, the higher your public profile, the more of a target you become.

Friend or foe, Google will have your information in its servers for a long time; a little paranoia won't kill you, and it just might save you if Google ever turns back on its "Don't Be Evil" mantra.

Logan Kugler is a frequent Computerworld contributor. His most recent article was "10 must-have Firefox extensions for business."

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