Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Google Secure Search and Security Overkill

Google announced on Friday the availability of a beta version of its secure search.

Secure search? Well, kind of. Google, of course, still retains all your search data. But users will now have the option of searching over an SSL connection. Just type https instead of http in the Google URL and your searches are safe from prying eyes, Google and your desktop notwithstanding.

The rushed timing of the latest announcement is no coincidence. Google has been in some serious hot water over the last few weeks for gathering data from insecure wifi connections using StreetView. Unlike previous Google privacy $@#%-ups, StreetView wifi-gate has users, and especially governments, genuinely annoyed. A big American company driving by in a van and kinda sorta intercepting wifi traffic understandably rubs a lot of folks the wrong way, especially in Europe.

There is a certain delicious irony here. Google gets busted for spying on unencrypted wifi connections, and responds by offering encrypted search. Google is basically saying that you had better think about encrypting your search results, because there are a lot of crazy folks out there who might be trying to listen in. Heck, even we might be accidentally listening in!

Ironic or not, at least this makes some sense. Last week I wrote about Facebook trying to address a growing privacy uproar by offering a totally unrelated security option. While offering a rare mea culpa for the wifi snooping, with secure search Google is also not-so-subtly castigating users for their use of insecure connections. A bit like Toyota reminding users about the importance of seat belts...

[Since we're on the wifi topic, one quick digression - I don't believe for a minute that Google has any interest in spying on user wifi data. With so much data on so many users, the last thing the company needs is to physically go to users to get their information. I take at face value the claim that a "programming error" was responsible for the extraneous data collection. Unlike Facebook, Google has a deeper well of general public sympathy to draw on and my theory is that the public, if not necessarily the legal, aspects of this incident will quickly blow over.]

But back to secure search, which has been in the works for a while and is much more than a response to the wifi incident. Cynics say that secure search is just a ploy by Google to keep precious search data from the ISPs. To me that doesn't hold much water. Secure search will never comprise more than a tiny slice of overall Google searches unless it is the default. And I don't see that happening any time soon.

At the risk of overestimating the importance of the security profession, I would argue that one of the main motivations behind the new service is Google's interest in placating the security purists within organizations considering its enterprise services. As the biggest cloud service provider in the world, Google's entire corporate future is tied into trust and security in web applications. If Google wants to convince users to ditch desktop applications and behind-the-firewall servers in favor of its web-centered universe, it needs to convince enterprises that it takes security uber-seriously. By being the first major player to offer to secure pre-authentication search data, Google casts itself as a cutting edge provider of secure cloud services.

But does secure search fulfill an actual security function that justifies its cost? Or is it a case of security overkill meets security theatre?

Searching away from prying eyes

Let's start with what Google searches over https achieve. By encrypting traffic, search traffic will be safe from network sniffers.

Here's my best stab at a list of people/entities you might not want seeing your Google searches:

1. Your husband/wife/roommate/parents
2. Your employer
3. The random sys admin at your Internet cafe, university, etc.
4. Your government or ISP

Secure search does nothing for (1). In case (2), your employer is probably not terminating SSL connections, but they may very well be, so you can't really count on your searches being secure. With (4), your government or ISP have enough information on you (like your entire traffic history) that your search history becomes largely irrelevant.

That leaves (3). The only real advantage of secure search is protecting you in random networks you might be connecting to. This seems like a pretty limited use case. And anyone sufficiently security conscious is already tunneling their traffic on public networks rendering moot the privacy advantage of secure search.

How did you get here?

There is one big privacy advantage to secure search - referrer headers are no longer passed, so the web page you are landing on no longer knows how you got there. The vast majority of Internet users do not realize a simple fact that is obvious to most of the security minded readers of this blog. When you search "furry animals" on Google, and land on www.myfurryanimals.com, the webmaster of the latter sees that you landed there by searching "furry animals". The entire web analytics industry is built around this fact.

But you don't need SSL to disable referrer headers. And besides, if someone is so concerned about privacy, they might be better off getting an anonymous proxy. Proxied traffic usually uses encrypted protocols, so at that point using secure search becomes superfluous.

I have no idea what the performance or functionality hit on secure search will be, but for now I don't see the numbers adding up in favor of the service. Searching on the beta Google secure search site seems slightly slower than regular http Google, (although admittedly from the confines of a crowded New York cafe on a Sunday evening). So here's my back-of-the-napkin calculation: I probably do 100 Google searches a day. If each of those is 1 second slower (and I'm just making up the numbers here), is it really worth an extra 1min and 40 seconds of my time every day to hide my Google search history from a hypothetical person who might want to look at it?

The large majority of users have so many toolbars, widgets, and logged in applications running at the same time that the entire concept of SSL encrypting their search traffic is ridiculous. But even for privacy conscious users this seems like one proverbial bridge too far. Secure search might give users a false sense of privacy with little tangible benefit.

An interesting project by the Electroric Freedom Foundation called Panopticlick shows that your browser basically provides servers enough information to be uniquely identifiable. With all the fonts, plugins, and other settings your browser has, even with an anonymous proxy a website can identify you as a return visitor. For the average user, online privacy is a bit of a heads they win, tail you lose proposition. No matter what measures they are taking, it turns out that they are still traceable online.

All this certainly should't be construed as meaning that secure search is useless. Whatever one thinks of Google's privacy policies, they do offer a rich set of user security configuration options. With options like tying password reset to a mobile number, showing the last IP addresses that logged into a Google Account, and default SSL for many enterprise applications, Google offers a significant arsenal of security options that is more robust than many of its competitors. I'm just not sure if secure search adds much to this portfolio.


  1. There is another factor probably worth thinking about - you can be sure that you really have Google on the other end and not some scam site you got to through manipulated DNS entries.

  2. Thanks - that is a good point Wladimir. Most users ignore browser warnings, but this does add an extra line of defense.

  3. Wladmir's point is especially applicable to TOR users, since they're at fairly high risk of being man-in-the-middle'd. It has some specialist uses... just not very many.


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