Privacy advocates are starting to sound the alarm over a feature in Google's Chrome that sends anything typed in the browser's Omnibox back to Google.
Google told CNET News earlier Wednesday that it plans to store about 2 percent of the data it gets back, along with the IP address of the computer that sent it. Google said it won't receive or store data if users turn off the auto-suggest feature or if they select a default search provider other than Google or if they are using the product's "Incognito" mode.
Still, EFF staff technologist Peter Eckersley said in an interview that he is concerned about Google having yet another window into what the world is browsing.
"We're worried that Chrome will be another giant conveyer belt moving private information about our use of the Web into Google's data vaults," Eckersley said. "Google already knows far too much about what everybody is thinking at any given moment."
Eckersley did point out that there are several ways to keep the data from being sent to Google, but noted that there is still a lot of data that will head Google's way.
Because Chrome is open source, Eckersley suggested that one option would be for privacy-minded outsiders to create their own suggestion engine that sits on surfers' own PCs, offering some of the utility that Google provides, without having to send the data to its servers. He noted that Chrome, itself, already does this when a surfer uses Chrome in its more stealthy Incognito mode. In that case, all suggestions are based on a surfer's locally stored history.
"The addition of Incognito is great," he said, adding that Google is making some strides with Chrome, clearly recognizing that people want to be able to surf the Web without having a record of it stored in various places.
"They are making some initial moves in the directions of that," Eckersley said, but reiterated his concerns over how the Omnibox works.
"We are genuinely really worried about the Omnibox thing," he said. "It's just one more piece of the complete puzzle of Google seeing everything that everyone is doing."
Simon Davies, Founder of Privacy International and a senior fellow with the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) also expressed concern over the Omnibox feature.
"I'm astonished that these terms are sent to Google even without the return being hit," Davies said. "That is beyond anything that Google has ever contemplated before."
Davies said the lack of attention to privacy and less-than-clear disclosure of its information use is typical Google behavior.
"This is why Google is running into trouble with regulators in Europe," Davies said. "They will trip themselves up at some point very badly. The patience of regulators is growing thin."