January 27, 2010, 12:07 PM — No one is accusing Google of being Big Brother, but it certainly was eye-opening when Ben Edelman, an assistant professor at Harvard Business School, shows that newer versions of Google Toolbar, versions 6.3 and above, was tracking Internet Explorer 8 users actions even when it was 'off.'
Of course this begs the question, "Is there someone out there who ever turns the extremely useful Google Toolbar off?" I never have. Still, it is disturbing that this bug ever made it to the public in the first place. I mean, what part of 'off' did Google's developers not get?
Specifically, this error kept information going to Google even when the Toolbar was turned off. Still, it only showed up in a very limited set of circumstances. In Edelman's analysis, he showed that only IE 8 users who were using Google Toolbar's optional features Sidewiki and PageRank were vulnerable to this bug. Sidewiki is an online discussion system that lets Toolbar users talk about any page whether it has its own online comment system or not. PageRank is, of course, the system Google uses to rank the importance of various Web pages. The higher a page's rank, the higher it will appear on Google's search pages.
It should also be noted that, as Edelman himself admits on his page, that he's involved as a litigator in a lawsuit involving Google and he advises various Google competitors. In other words, he has an ax to grind. Google itself has announced that it never meant to keep collecting information and that it's already pushing out a Google Toolbar update that will take care of the problem once and for all.
That said, it still reminds me that we tend to be too trustworthy of our online systems. When you're on the Web, whether you're using Google Toolbar or not, it's all too easy for your every move to be watched. Cookies alone make sure that you're tracked as you go from site to site. We may not yet live in a world where privacy doesn't exist, but you can see it from here.