If you’re a Google fan, employee, or stockholder, you’ll see Chrome OS as the latest of the company’s efforts to provide the best experience for users. If you’re a competitor, you’re probably more apprehensive to see Google extending its reach into operating systems. And if you’re a privacy activist, like me, this move probably reinforces your biggest fears about the Internet giant: true to its mission statement, it really is after all the world’s information.
Remember when, back in the 1990s, Microsoft tried to exploit the power that came with being the world’s dominant PC software company to make itself into the most important provider of Web browsers, Web servers, and Internet services? The same thing could happen again, only in reverse. Google, the king of Internet search and advertising, could use the strength of its Internet applications to muscle its way into your future netbook, and from there onto your desktop. Google’s vast array of Web properties will work best with the Chrome OS–not because Google is engaging in any monopolistic practices but because the system has been designed from the ground up to run complex Web apps. And if you can do everything inside a Web browser, why would you want to pay for a bigger, slower computer that has to be painstakingly managed?
The convergence of Chrome and Chrome OS with Google’s cloud-based services also represents a seismic shift in the world of privacy. In the 20 years that I’ve been writing about these issues, the most significant privacy threats have come from companies seeking to collect and sell personal information and governments trying to access those commercial data banks. Chrome OS changes the equation dramatically. Now, for the first time, consumers will be encouraged to store much of their personal information with a single company–a company that makes its money by mining user data. And all that personal information will be protected by nothing more than a single username and password. Worse, sometimes it might not be protected at all: after all, Google decided to enroll millions of Gmail users in Google Buzz without their permission, sharing many of their Gmail contacts in the process. Chrome OS users will no longer have to worry about storing, managing, or backing up their personal data. But what if Google’s vast data bank gets hacked, accidentally leaked, or shared with a pernicious government?
Many people mistakenly think that Google’s primary product is search, and that they are the company’s customers. In fact, a whopping $22.9 billion of Google’s $23.7 billion in 2009 revenues came from the sale of advertising. Google tracks and mines the behavior of its users in order to target its advertising more effectively. Consumer mouse clicks are Google’s real product, and advertisers are its true customers. Chrome and Chrome OS will give consumers more incentive to hand their personal data over to the Googleplex, further increasing Google’s inventory and click-through rates. And having access to that personal information will let Google do an even better job of targeting advertisements to users who are most likely to click.
Google’s real customers–that is, all those companies that spend billions each month to use its advertising services–will no doubt be pleased. More advertising space translates into a lower cost per click. But for ordinary users it may not be such good news. Today, you can still run applications locally, and keep your data exactly where you want. In the future, if you want to be part of Google’s revolution in personal computing, you may no longer have that choice.
Simson L. Garfinkel is a researcher and author based in california. His research includes work on computer forensics, privacy, and personal information management.
Hear more from Google at EmTech 2014.