Forget China: Is Google's Toolbar Spying on You?

Google Spy

In the debacle over China's Web attacks against Google, it's easy to forget that Google itself does some questionable things. Now there's a suggestion that its toolbar monitors your Web activity, even when you disable it.

The news comes via Ben Edelman's blog, where he documents some very careful testing of Google's toolbar monitoring system. Edelman, who happens to be the co-counsel in an unrelated lawsuit against Google for trademark infringement, installed the browser toolbar for Internet Explorer, then used a network monitoring tool to see exactly what traffic was sent to Google's great white data center in the sky.

The results were interesting and worrisome. Ben found that it was very, very easy, when installing Google's tool—supposedly designed to aid your browsing experience, mind you—to switch on "Enhanced Features" which effectively opens up the pipe to Google's data archive from your Web activities. When the feature is activated, Google collects URLs of all sites you visit, and even the search terms you tap into rival search engines—presumably so it can monitor which sort of traffic its users prefer to get from elsewhere, and thus enabling it to tweak its offerings to favor its customers better.

Assuming you're one of the sorts of open-data people who don't worry about the privacy implications of sharing such data with a company that's probably in a far-off country, then you'll see no issues with this. It'll probably help Google deliver better search results in the long term, and indeed Google is fairly open about what it's doing here—if you read its disclosures with a magnifying glass. The problem comes, as Ben demonstrated, when you turn the toolbar off. Using the "disable" feature for the current IE window, and verifying that the bar had disappeared, Ben surfed to other Web sites and again used the network monitoring tool—which revealed that Google was still sending its data to, its data archiving system. In other words, Google's duping the user into believing he's surfing in private, when in fact the "off" button isn't actually turning anything off.

Edelman also tried IE8's "manage add ons" tool to actively disable Google's toolbar from outside the app. And saw the same thing happening with Google's archive. His concern is that it's actually pretty easy to activate Google's "enhanced features" for an average Net user, who then won't be able to turn it off should they reconsider their privacy sharing position. Google is quite clearly doing everything it can to get hold of your precious data including almost, but not quite entirely, lying to you about when it's monitoring what you're up to.

This casts Chinese censorship—which is at least glaringly obvious—in a whole new light doesn't it?

[Ben Edelman]

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  • Michael Pruitt

    I apologize then actually. I misinterpreted where you were talking about disabling the toolbar. I thought you were disabling it under View -> Toolbars. That does look far more suspicious than I was thinking. Google's wording there looks pretty explicit about it being disabled there. This is what I get for reading the article and not your blog post and responding hastily.

  • Ben Edelman


    Can I trouble you to take a look at the screenshots on my site? See especially these:

    Google's top-listed option indicates that the toolbar will be "Disable[d]." There's no suggestion of the Google Toolbar merely disappearing or running in the background. Google specifically asks: "When do you want to disable Google Toolbar and its features?", and proposes "only for this window" as the first-listed and default choice.

    Reading that message, how could a user think the toolbar is hidden but still operational?

    I don't agree that IE8's left-edge "X" buttons ordinarily result in add-ons running invisibly in the background. In my testing, when a user closes a toolbar with the X, the toolbar ordinarily ceases to function altogether. Can you offer some specific examples that support your claim of toolbars continuing to run in the background?

    Ben Edelman

  • Michael Pruitt

    This seems like a silly complaint to me. Turning off a toolbar in the view portion of IE only hides the toolbar. It doesn't turn off the features. This is normal behavior for IE. All extra toolbars for IE are add-ons that are loaded and running in the background. You can go in and disable the Google Toolbar add-on to get the desired results. This may seem counter intuitive, but this is how IE is written and is true for any other toolbar you can add to it.