Does Google's OS decrease or increase security risks?

Google's upcoming Chrome operating system could cut both ways when it comes to our risk of suffering Internet attacks.

Wednesday's two big technology stories-- Google's Chrome-based operating system and cyberattacks against U.S. and South Korean government Web sites are oddly related. The stories are connected because if Google does well at gaining market share for its browser, we could see fewer successful attacks. Or maybe we'll see more attacks.

The reason hackers succeeded in launching denial-of-service attacks against government computers in the U.S. and South Korea is because they were able to enlist an army of "zombie" computers to carry out the attack. And what do those computers likely have in common? The vast majority of them likely run Microsoft Windows.

Whether Windows is inherently less secure than Mac OS X or Linux is debatable, but one thing is for sure--it's more popular and therefore a more attractive target to hackers. Indeed with nearly 90 percent of the world's PCs running Windows, it's something of a "single point of failure." Figure out how to infect Windows PCs and you can stage a very successful attack.

Linux--which is the underpinning of Google Chrome--is not entirely exempt from malicious software but historically Linux machines are less likely to be infected. So it stands to reason that the more machines running non-Windows software, the safer we'll all be.

But there's another side to this story. The Chrome OS will be far more Web-centric than Windows, which means that many--if not most--of its applications will be running over the Internet. What's more, people's data will be stored "in the cloud," much of it on servers run by Google. So while Google may help reduce Microsoft's potential as a single point of failure, it increases its own. If hackers were successful in launching an attack on Google, that would affect not only people's ability to use Google apps, but the integrity of their data.

Although there weren't any reported data breaches, there was a day in May of this year when Google sites were partially inaccessible as a result of a technical glitch. On that day, millions of people were unable to use Google services, including Google Docs and Spreadsheets. Say what you want about Microsoft, but even if the company totally shut down its Web operations, its operating system and PC applications would still run.

Personally, I'm a big believer in competition and like cloud computing, so I welcome Google's entry into the operating system arena. But like almost anything worthwhile, it's not without risk.

About the author

Larry Magid is a technology journalist and an Internet safety advocate. He's been writing and speaking about Internet safety since he wrote Internet safety guide "Child Safety on the Information Highway" in 1994. He is co-director of ConnectSafely.org, founder of SafeKids.com and SafeTeens.com, and a board member of the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children. Larry's technology analysis and commentary can be heard on CBS News and CBS affiliates, and read on CBSNews.com. He also writes a personal-tech column for the San Jose Mercury News. You can e-mail Larry.

 

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