Does Chrome OS Increase Privacy Risk?

Technology Review has a somewhat inflammatory piece that takes as its point of departure that the CR-48 prototype laptops reveal that the search giant’s new OS in development doesn’t rely on local storage. Rather it uses an always on wireless connection to access both applications and personal information. This is hardly news as the first reveal of the OS indicated it would include only the bare minimum plumbing needed to support the Chrome browser. The implication was pretty clear and supported by subsequent reporting such as on the VNC-like remoting feature for so-called native applications.

I re-phrased the thrust of this story as a question because I see it as just part of a larger trend that started initially in the nineties. Killer apps have increasingly popped up on the web versus on our local computers. This has drawn users further onto the network with the browser as the prime gateway for that access. Chrome OS just eliminates alternatives to web applications that might offer more privacy preserving choices. I may be cynical but I suspect the presence or absence of these alternatives is a small factor in the calculus of most users today.

To be fair to Erica Naone, the author, she does dig further into the some of the nuances of the program. Most notable is that while the Chrome browser you can install on any other OS already tracks users, it does not do so for the purposes of advertising. Many have been speculating that the forthcoming final versions of netbooks running Chrome OS will be free , supported by advertising revenue. Data collection then would be a natural higher priority to make this model as cost effective as possible. Naone also points out that privacy concerned users can opt out of collection, at least with the prototype rigs.

I have to question the economics everyone else takes for granted. We’ve already seen that the large cost in netbooks isn’t in the hardward itself. There are many excellent, cheap portables to choose from but where they pinch the wallet potentially is if you want to add a cellular data plan. By limiting users to the model of browser-as-OS, Google is eliminating another choice, for users to forego a data plan they might not be able to afford. A Chrome OS computer without ubiquitous network access may as well be a doorstop.

I would much rather see Google exercise some bulk buying or other market pressure to reduce the cost of cellular data plans to be more in line with what is on offer in other developed nations than spend time to figure out how to cram yet more ads into their latest offering.

Chrome OS Knows Your Every Move, Technology Review

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The Chrome OS Answer to Native Apps: Remote Control

The Register has an exclusive story based on a public email from Google engineer, Gary Kačmarčík, and some follow up correspondence. The capability will be called “Chromoting” (which right there has my inner skeptic squinting his eyes at that name) and there are few details beyond that. Kačmarčík did compare the feature to something like RDP or VNC but executed from within the Chrome browser. The requirement of an additional machine running a traditional OS seems kind of a steep cost for someone in the market for a netbook, the intended target device of Chrome OS.

I suppose Google’s view is that netbooks are accessories not entirely independent computers. It isn’t too far different from the dependency inherent in the non-“legacy” applications Chrome OS will support, that is to say web applications that will require either a persistent connection or savvy developers to make use of newer web APIs for offline applications.

I suspect that the remote application feature will function something like the transparent mode most desktop virtualization tools provide. That is, rather than getting a typical RDP or VNC session which is a single window with the entire remote desktop, this capability will make it appear that only a single application is being remoted. That wouldn’t be too far of with can be done with a pair of X servers which you can run on Windows and Mac OSX as well as Linux and Unix systems. I suspect the first hackers to get their hands on a build with this feature will be able to sniff out the remote communications and tell us if it is indeed a frame buffer type tool, like VNC or RDP, or something more akin to XDMCP.