Google browser keeping tabs on keystrokes?

October 30, 2008 6:59:01 PM PDT
There is controversy surrounding Google's new Web browser, Chrome. Is it on the cutting edge of privacy or does it make a consumer's Web activities an open book?

7 On Your Side has been talking with representatives of Google and Consumer Watchdog. Both sides profess great respect for the other. There is no name calling here, but common ground is not easy to find.

The controversy begins when you begin typing in the Chrome browser and suggestions are made. Those suggestions are coming from Google, so with every keystroke there is a conversation between your computer and Google's server.

"They are spying on you even on your keystrokes. They are watching the data that you transmit. And it's not just that Google gets to watch it, anybody that's sitting between your personal computer and Google servers, with really simple technology, can watch what you are doing on the Web," said Doug Heller with ConsumerWatchdog.org.

That conversation can be recorded and stored by Google. Google says 98 percent are thrown out and the remaining two percent are made anonymous within 24 hours.

"That two percent that we keep, we keep in order to improve the service. We need this information to make sure that we can serve our users in the future and also we can make sure that we give better and better suggestions when people type a letter," said Google's Brian Rakowski.

Once the user begins surfing the Web, Chrome offers a privacy setting called incognito. You might think Consumer Watchdog would like that, but it does not, in part because the user must select the setting every single time the browser is fired up. Consumer Watchdog says that should be a default setting. Google says it has done all of this on purpose.

"When most people use incognito we found that they have a limited session. They are trying to do something for a short period of time they do not want on their computer, rather than they don't want anything ever on their computer again," said Rakowski.

Consumer Watchdog wants Google to be more proactive and to make opting out obvious and easy.

"On Google's home page when you search, or right on the Chrome browser, they should have a very simple opt out, 'I don't want Google watching my keystrokes,'" said Heller.

"I think that's a good idea. What they are asking for is actually something that works across lot of different sites, works across all Google sites and all Google products and it works across other sites as well, and they'd like us to start at Google. But this is something that we have to do with every single site. It's not something we can do as a browser," said Rakowski.

Consumer Watchdog has set up a video online to show how it says Google's Chrome can follow you around the Internet and with little effort actually track you physically down.

Video excerpt: "My IP address puts me in the Mission District of San Francisco, California. Surprisingly close to where I actually live."

Google says the video misrepresents how Google and the Internet work and have their own posts addressing privacy issues.

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