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Google makes finding data easier, riskier

world Updated: Mar 25, 2007 11:34 IST
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It's hard enough to find a file on a single computer. If, like many people these days, you use multiple computers, the problems are compounded.

You may have typed up some vital text to be included in your next business report, or written an e-mail message that contains some important information that you've now forgotten.

But which computer did you save it on?

Google has come up with a way to answer the question. The latest version of the company's popular Desktop Search tool available for free (http://desktop.google.com), provides a Search Across Computers feature that will allow you to conduct searches across all your computers while you're sitting at just one of them.

Search Across Computers, while easy to implement, comes with some caveats, however, so it's worth exploring the tool in some detail.

Once you download and install Google Desktop Search, open the tool either from your Start menu or from the taskbar icon that the program installs.

Once you do, you'll see a familiar-looking browser window with the Google Desktop logo. Click the Desktop Preferences link to the right of the search box, and then click the Google Account Features tab. Scroll down, and you'll see the Search Across Computers section.

Select the checkbox that enables Search Across Computers, and type in your Google account information. If you don't have one, you can create one from this page for free. You'll need to install Google Desktop Search and enable Search Across Computers on every computer that you'd like to be able to search.

Once Search Across Computers is activated on your computers, you can use Desktop Search to locate any text-based document on any computer, regardless of whether all of the computers are turned on or off. The documents searchable include those created by office applications, e-mail, Web pages visited, and chats.

How does Google Desktop Search work this magic? Here's where things get tricky — and objectionable to some.

With Search Across Computers enabled, Google indexes and stores versions of your files remotely on its servers — that's really the only way such a feature can be implemented.

So what you're doing when you use Search Across Computers is actually conducting a Web-style search on Google's computers. Those computers just happen to have indexes of the material on all of the computers you've allowed the company access to.

Sound a bit scary? It can be, especially with concerns about how secure your data is and whether what's on your computer might ever be shared with a third party.

Google addresses these concerns in its privacy policy, easily accessible when you activate Search Across Computers. The transmission of your data, Google says, is done securely, and your indexed files are treated as personal information.

But personal information may not always stay out of the hands of third parties. Google can share information with third parties when complying with a legal process, helping to prevent fraud, or ensuring the security of its networks, according to Google's privacy policy.

In short, if one or more of your computers contain information that might some day be used not in your favour, you'll want to think twice about enabling Google's Search Across Computers feature.

But for those who restrict sensitive personal information to one computer and frequently find themselves in need of non-sensitive information, Search Across Computers is a one-of-a-kind tool that can be a lifesaver.

Search Across Computers does allow you specify the kinds of documents that the feature may index — giving you choices of "documents only", "Web history only", or "documents and Web history".

And there are a number of configuration options that help to lessen privacy concerns, including the ability to remove deleted material from an index and to turn off Search Across Computers so that others cannot use it on one of your computers while you're away.

Whether you ultimately decide that Google Desktop's Search Across Computers feature is right for your needs, it's worth investigating to see whether you can tailor it to your needs. Even the ability to search e-mail across multiple computers will make it a compelling tool for many.