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Google to offer encrypted search next week

By Ryan Singel |17 May 2010 |Categories: Technology

Google will begin letting users run encrypted searches on its flagship search site starting next week, the company said in a blog post.

Allowing users to search using https — the web security system that many associate with online banking and shopping — would mark a first for a major search engine, and could begin a move by web services such as social networks to begin offering encryption for more than just log-ins. Such increased adoption would cut down on network eavesdropping and also have the added benefit of preventing some online attacks.

Ironically, the announcement of the upcoming change came in a long blog post explaining that the search company had been “mistakenly” eavesdropping and recording what people were doing on unencrypted Wi-Fi networks as its Street View cars were taking pictures of cities around the world and recording the IDs of Wi-Fi networks and routers. That data is used to help geo-locate people using devices without GPS, but the company has said for years it was not collecting session data.

Google turned on encryption — better known as https:// — as a default for Gmail users earlier this year. That encrypts the data sent between a user’s browser and Google’s servers, making it nearly impossible for someone in the middle to read the contents of that email. When not using SSL, a user of a school or corporate network can have their email and web traffic content read by authorities who control the network, while anyone using an open Wi-Fi connection can have their traffic sniffed by a hacker using simple tools.

Gmail was the first major webmail service to offer encryption for full sessions, rather than just for log-ins. Google allowed power users to use https:// for years, and under pressure from privacy and security advocates turned it into the default for all users earlier this year. In contrast, Gmail’s competitors including Yahoo Mail or Microsoft’s Hotmail don’t even offer https sessions as an option.

Using https, rather than http, is not technically difficult, but the authenticating handshakes between a server and a browser do require more resources from both a server and the browser. That means it costs a company more to run a service and can slow down an application.

This story relates to Google US, but we have contacted the company to find out if will also be enabling encrypted search. We will update this story when we hear back.

Update: Google UK’s official response to our question about UK search encryption: “There’s nothing more we can add at this stage.” Oh well.

Photo Credit: Flickr  CC: Vagamundos | Online Editor: George Barrow
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