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Chromebooks - Eight disadvantages - Part 1: Security

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#1 Michael Pietroforte

Michael Pietroforte

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Posted 24 May 2011 - 10:03 PM

A few days ago, Google announced Chromebooks, “a new kind of computer,” as the Google Chrome blog was titled. I watched the Day 2 video of the keynote speech for the Google I/O developer conference, and I read several comments on the web. I often found myself shaking my head. This five-part series covers eight of the causes that made my head shake: security, accessibility and ability, updates and backup, usability and cloudability.

<p style="text-align: center;">I must add a disclaimer before I start. After reading this, you might conclude that this is just another one of my Microsoft fan boy posts. The truth is that I am also a Google fan boy. Not only is the Google search engine much better than Bing, they also have the better web browser. And I couldn't live without many of Google's great web applications. Although I had quite a few issues with Android, I believe it is the best mobile OS out there. I want you to keep this in mind when reading the following rant against Chromebooks.

1. Security
My neck still hurts from shaking my head too intensely when Sundar Pichai (senior vice president of Chrome) brought up the security argument against Windows. Frankly, this is plain FUD. It is true that you won't need antivirus software for Chromebooks. But the only reason for this is that their market share will be even lower than for other Linux netbooks. Thus virus writers have no reason to specifically target the underlying Linux of Chrome OS. They can just rely on the inherently low security of the open web. However, if Chromebooks ever reaches a significant market share (which I doubt), then virus writers will target Chrome OS exactly in the same way as they do today with Windows. Rest assured that you will then have to install antivirus software on Chromebooks.

Besides, when it comes to security, conventional viruses only play a minor role nowadays. You don't have to be a security expert to know that the bad guys have shifted their attention from Windows to the open web years ago. Hacking a popular website and infecting it with malware, or creating a new website and then pushing it to the top in Google for popular search terms, is certainly much more effective than writing a Windows virus, considering that Microsoft raised the security level a few bars with Windows Vista and again with Windows 7. Funny thing is that Google Chrome is the most vulnerable application out there. It is no coincidence that almost all of the top 15 most vulnerable applications are related to the web.

Yes, Google invested a lot in Chromium's security. But if you take a closer look at the security measures, you will notice that Chrome OS faces the same security issues as any other operating system. Google wants us to believe that Chrome OS is a new kind of computer that didn't inherit the legacy problems of operating systems created decades ago. The truth is that Chrome OS is simply a Linux distribution that can only run one conventional application. This application happens to be the most vulnerable program facing the Open Web, which is the most insecure place in cyberspace.

It is a nightmare for any admin if users can run any kind of application on the Open Web, exposing the whole company network with their Chromebooks. Traditionally, firewalls and other security mechanisms shielded the corporate network from the dangerous Internet. How can you shield Chromebooks? As soon as all your data and applications are in the Open Web, your firewall has become obsolete. This means the bad guys can access your data anytime and from anywhere. Unlike business travelers, hackers around the planet always have high-speed Internet access. So, for them, the “high accessibility” of your organization's data has a completely different meaning. Moving your complete corporate network to the Open Web increases the attack surface of your organization's IT to the size of the whole Internet.

And what about the cloud providers? Do you really trust all Google's employees and those of other cloud providers 100%, considering that you've never met even one of their admins in person? Everyone who has physical access to your data and applications has a range of new ways to do bad things to your organization's most valuable assets.

Of course, these objections against cloud security are not new and are debated heavily on the web. But to tout Chromebooks as more secure, just because their insignificant market share in the foreseeable future makes antivirus software obsolete, is either barefaced or naïve.

In my next post, I will compare the accessibility and the ability of Chrome OS and Windows applications.

Author: Michael Pietroforte
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