Are your Web searches safe from snoops? It's an issue that may not have been on many people's radar.
Traditionally, the higher-profile issue for search engines like Google (NASDAQ: GOOG) and Yahoo (NASDAQ: YHOO) is that they maintain a record of users' search sessions for several months as part of a massive data collection the companies say is needed to help improve search results.
Now Google is tackling a different slice of the privacy issue by launching a beta of its standard Google search that's encrypted with the same Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) technology used by many Web services including e-commerce sites and Google's own Gmail service. Web addresses that begin with the letters "https" are SSL-protected.
The news comes at time of heightened concern among users and IT with Web security and privacy as more personal information is put online. Social networks like Facebook have been criticized for not having enough privacy controls in place, and Google itself was hit by a series of sophisticated cyber attacks, alleged to have originated in China, that also threatened a number of other U.S. companies.
Currently, Google is dealing with investigations in a variety of countries brought by regulators alarmed by revelations of the inadvertent collection of Wi-Fi transmissions by Google's StreetView cars. The company first revealed plans to debut its encrypted search in response to the Wi-Fi controversy.
In a blog post announcing the release of the beta, Google said the encrypted connection between the Web browser and the new Google.com search site helps protect users/ search terms and search results pages from being intercepted by third parties.
"We think users will appreciate this new option for searching. It's a helpful addition to users' online privacy and security, and we'll continue to add encryption support for more search offerings," Google software engineer Evan Roseman said in the blog post.
Over the past several years, Google, Yahoo and other search engines have reduced the period of time they retain users' data, though consumer advocacy and privacy groups continue to pressure them to eliminate the retention altogether. Google's retention time is nine months, while Yahoo holds onto the data for 90 days. Google was quick to point out the search encryption alternative isn't related to the firm's retention policies, which haven't changed.
"Searching over SSL doesn't reduce the data sent to Google -- it only hides that data from third parties who seek it. And clicking on any of the Web results, including Google universal search results for unsupported services like Google Images, could take you out of SSL mode," Roseman said. "Our hope is that more Web sites and services will add support for SSL to help create a better and more consistent experience for you."
A boon to mobile security?
Analyst Ben Bajarin said the value of Google's encryption may become more evident with the rapid growth of mobile Internet use.
"Privacy and security is going to be a big issue when you're using voice and other mobile search as far as how much information you want to display when you're in the clear," Bajarin, an analyst with Creative Strategies, told InternetNews.com. "When you're using a mobile device it's not just about what you're searching but your location. A lot of people are extremely uncomfortable providing that information, so Google is saying 'If there's a hole there in what people want, let's address that.'"
Analyst Dan Miller said adding encrypted search may help Google appease some of the privacy concerns of both tech-savvy users and the general consumer.
"If you're a sophisticated user, you know so much of the public Internet is unprotected and scannable," Miller, an analyst with Opus Research, told InternetNews.com.
"This may presage some serious thought about encrypting the full range of services inside Google's cloud and also something its competitors will look at," he said. "For now it's a differentiator for Google."
Miller noted that there is also a certain irony that Google will be able to measure the interest and success of the service by continuing to collect data on users' search sessions that it's been criticized for retaining.