Beware Your Desktop Search
In past few years desktop searching has become very popular. Finding programs and documents on computers was dependent on the user remembering where the file was saved, or under what menu it was filed. Users would remember having a conversation, but not be able to recall if it was via e-mail, instant messenger, on a web page, or in a shared document.
Enter desktop search applications to the rescue. Dozens of applications exist today, two of the most popular come from Google and Microsoft. Desktop search is even built into Mac OS X and Windows 7. Google Desktop Search, for example, can index a large selection of data from a computer. The list includes e-mail (Gmail, Outlook, Thunderbird), web sites (Internet Explorer, Firefox), Instant Messenger (AOL, MSN, Google Talk), Microsoft Office documents, Adobe PDFs, music, videos, images, and zip archive files.
These indexing programs do a very thorough job. They will index everything without regard for sensitivity of the data being indexed. They will find the 5 year old document buried in your "My Documents" folder that contains student social security numbers. They will index the payroll data and salary adjustment spreadsheets that you received via e-mail.
This index is typically stored in a file on your computer. This file could become a target for criminals that break into computers and therefore should be treated carefully. While it may slow down the search performance, encrypting the file or containing folder would help prevent the database being transferred to another computer.
Some search applications include a feature that will store your search results and data on a remote server so you can search and access the data from multiple computers. At this point, the risk of data disclosure becomes unacceptable for most University users. Remember the documents our indexing program found earlier? With this option enabled, you actually transfer your files, or at least a portion of your files, to a 3rd party.
Desktop search applications can be very useful, but you need to be very aware of the data you access on your computer and what data is indexed by the search application. Remember that while these programs make it easy for you to find data on your computer, the data may be uploaded to a 3rd party or the search application can be used by a criminal to easily find data.