Nothing attracts scrutiny so well as size and success, so welcome to the majors, Google (Nasdaq: GOOG ) . Today, a New York Times story broke the news that Google's popular desktop search program contained a "flaw" that could conceivably allow hackers to view information from a user's computer.
The flood of headlines today probably won't reflect the real threat from this loophole. For a bit of perspective, consider that the flaw was found by a team of graduate students -- a pair of Seths -- and their professor at Rice University. For the flaw to have been exploited, the hackers would first have had to fool users into visiting a website. Thereafter, a small application could fool the search program into sending personal results meant for Google -- to generate advertising words -- to the hypothetical hacking team.
Imagine the horror! Complete strangers knowing that your computer contains 150 cached "Britney," "Lindsay," and "Paris" Web pages. Actually, it could also mean that, were you silly enough to store things like bank passwords and credit card numbers in a word processing file, then search for that file using the Google tool, your info could have been visible to cyberpunks.
But relax, you trash fans and security risks. According to the report, Google's had a fix for the problem out since Dec. 10, and no one other than the researchers appears to have concocted a working version of this scheme, though you can bet would-be hackers are working on one now.
While the headline writers do their best to feign shock and outrage, users and investors should remain calm. This won't be the last time you see a scheme like this surface as the (vastly overhyped) desktop search war heats up.
Remember, Google didn't invent that nifty little program -- nor Gmail -- to make your life easier. Google did that to make money by selling keywords and profit off its massive and ever-expanding database of online behavior. And you can bet that Johnny-came-next-months Microsoft (Nasdaq: MSFT ) , Ask Jeeves (Nasdaq: ASKJ ) , and Yahoo! (Nasdaq: YHOO ) have the same thing in mind. That means sending as much information back to headquarters as public mores will allow. And any time there's information flowing from your machine into the matrix, people are going to try to intercept it.
Making sure that doesn't happen is part of the key war for hearts, minds, and sticky eyeballs that feed the top line. Making sure that people aren't needlessly afraid that can happen is also part of that battle. The fact that Google has yet to issue a press release in response to the flaw -- which the firm has known about since last month -- suggests that it might have a little work to do.
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Seth Jayson recently replaced his Google search bar with the evil copycat from MSN, and he knows he will get angry email about that. At the time of publication, he had no positions in any company mentioned. View his stock holdings and Fool profile here. Fool rules are here.