What Google's Encrypted Search Changes

Google encrypted search beta

Encrypted search is probably one of the most important options for people searching on Google. It aims to improve privacy by creating an encrypted tunnel that allows data to travel between the browser and the chosen Web site or searches. Last Monday I told you how Google chief executive officer Eric Schmidt alluded to Google moving SSL into search, and by Friday the company had made the official announcement.

Identifying encrypted searches means looking for the "S" in "HTTP" in the browser URL to see if you are searching on a secure connection. Google's Matt Cutts describes SSL as "an important" option, but I'm taking that sentiment a step further, as consumers who want more privacy try to protect whatever little they have left. Here's why.

While the main benefit of using SSL in Google search is that the communication between a person's computer and Google's servers remain encrypted, but it shouldn't influence what paid search ads serve up on searches or on Web sites. Google can still record and store search Web histories that enable the engine to serve-up recommendations and targeted ads.

This SSL secured channel helps protect search terms and result pages from being intercepted by a third party that could use the information for identity theft and other malicious acts. It not only works for Web search, but also for other types of searches such as book, blog, and news. Image, product and Google Maps are not yet integrated with the new Google interface.

Although people can see the query in the URL, the sites between the person's browser and Google can't. Cutt's explains how Google OS demonstrated that by sniffing a regular HTTP query and an HTTPS query in Wireshark to show the query can be seen going over the wire.

Google explains how searching over SSL is different. The company notes SSL search turns off a browser's referrers when switching from HTTPS to HTTP mode to provide extra privacy. But while SSL prevents third-party companies, such as ISPs, from knowing the exact search you type, they could still know the Web sites visited once you click on the search results. Also, some experts suggest searches using SSL might slow connections because your computer needs time to establish security with Google.

Searches can reveal confidential intellectual property, upcoming product or service announcements, or other sensitive information that is not intended for unauthorized use. For example searches on retail Web sites often reveal the type of information being sent to third parties and to whom. To test the theory using a Chrome browser, log on to ebay.com and search for a product. In the left bottom corner of the browser you will see the names of third-party companies collecting the data on your searches.

It's almost an oxymoron to think about encrypting search data after reading a paper published by Scott Cleland, president at Precursor. He publishes a Web site that aims to hold Google accountable for issues related to privacy. A recent paper outlines default settings Google uses to maximize the collection of private information. He reminds us in the paper Google owns, hosts or aggregates more Internet content on its servers than any company in the world between YouTube, Google Earth, Maps, StreetView, Books, News, Finance, Blogger, Picassa, and more, and since Google does not allow competitors to track visits to Google content, the search engine uniquely tracks these trillions of clicks.

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