A problem with Google’s e-mail service, Gmail, let any user query the company’s servers for information on the last message sent, two hackers announced on Wednesday.
The programmers, part of a community site dedicated to the Unix-like FreeBSD operating system, found that an improperly formatted address allowed Gmail users to retrieve the message body of the last HTML-formatted e-mail processed by the server.
"The result is a compromise of the privacy of communications over Gmail," the two programmers stated in their write-up of the problem. "Message content and address information are easily–if somewhat randomly–available to unintended recipients."
Google acknowledged the problem Wednesday and said it had been fixed. It is unclear how long the glitch lasted.
The problem became apparent when an e-mail message sent by the programmers left off a ">" from the end of a recipient’s address. The result: Google’s server sent back seemingly random information that the hackers realized was information from someone else’s e-mail message.
Google acknowledged the problem and had fixed it by the end of the day, a source at the company said Wednesday. Since the problem originated in the application on the company’s servers, the fix immediately plugged the leak for all users, the source said.
The search giant has increasingly had to deal with security flaws because its popularity has security researchers looking more closely at the firm’s products. Worms have used Google’s search engine to find potentially vulnerable hosts on the Internet, and flaws in the company’s desktop search program left computers that ran the software open to attack.
However, because most of Google’s services run on the company’s own servers rather than on software installed on users’ systems, fixes for security problems can be deployed quickly.