The prototype laptops issued by Google send a lot of information back to headquarters, Cawrey notes, but much of this is intended to help get the CR-48 ready for commercial release. It’s uncertain how much information Google will collect once the testing period is over, he says.
Google emphasizes that users are given many ways to opt out of data collection, even during the testing period. They can do this temporarily, by using “guest mode,” or permanently, by choosing the appropriate option in the end-user license agreement.
In guest mode, Google stores all the data from the session in the cloud on a hard drive that is wiped after the user logs out. As with the Chrome browser, users can also browse the Web in “incognito mode,” in which their browsing activity isn’t recorded.
“Whether Chrome OS is a great operating system from a privacy point of view or a terrible operating system from a privacy point of view depends on your threat model,” says Peter Eckersley, a senior staff technologist with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a civil-liberties group that focuses on rights in the digital world. He explains that turning your data over to any company will prevent hackers from stealing it from your home computer, and it could even help dissidents in countries such as China and Iran cover their tracks. However, Eckersley notes that it also leaves the data vulnerable to possible abuses by the company storing it, whether it chooses to use it for advertising purposes or is compelled to surrender it under a government subpoena.
Eckersley says that additional privacy protections could be added to the Chrome browser and Chrome OS to protect users. He points to an extension for the Firefox Web browser that uses an anonymizing networking called Tor. Eckersley notes that the Chrome OS security model prevents the installation of software not approved by Google. While this does provide good security, he says, he is concerned that it could result in users having no control over what is and isn’t stored on their devices.
If Google does begin using Chrome OS data to target advertising, it’s unlikely to deter users who are like the operating system. “This is the slippery slope we’re on,” Cawrey says. “Will users accept targeted ads in exchange for cheaper, faster PCs? I think they will.”