What will Google's Chrome OS watch you do?

Google's announcement of the Chrome OS is big news, but what will the ramifications for privacy be? We take a look at Google's privacy track record on some of its other products and services.

Josh Lowensohn Former Senior Writer
Josh Lowensohn joined CNET in 2006 and now covers Apple. Before that, Josh wrote about everything from new Web start-ups, to remote-controlled robots that watch your house. Prior to joining CNET, Josh covered breaking video game news, as well as reviewing game software. His current console favorite is the Xbox 360.
Josh Lowensohn
6 min read

Google has a long history of tracking user activity, and the introduction of its Chrome operating system later this year is sure to follow suit. While we know that it's being built off of Linux, one big thing we don't know is how its terms of service will differ from those found in other Google products, and what kinds of user data it will be collecting. Based on the company's track record of watching and monetizing user data, it could be anything from which applications you're using, to all the information that's coming in and out of your computer.

To provide a better picture on what to expect, let's take a look at some of the ways Google is currently monitoring user activity in a handful of its products and how that may trickle down into the OS:

Google personalized Web search--Google's bread and butter business is its search engine, and its personalized search is a way to put a face on the data. When you're signed in with your Google account you can opt in to having your Web history tracked; Google archives all of the sites you've clicked on from search results, as well as what time of day you clicked on them.

For those who are not signed in, the company uses identifiers like cookies and IP addresses. But when you're signed in it can actually aggregate that data no matter what computer you're on. With a system-level log-in, it could theoretically do this no matter what browser you're using, giving Google a far richer set of data.

Chrome browser--When Chrome was first released, Google got in some hot water over its terms of service, which stated that Google had the rights to license any content that went through the browser. It quickly backtracked on the claim, citing that the terms heavily borrowed from other Google products and that it didn't make sense for Chrome. This would have given Google licensing control over things like user photos, videos, and words.

The one area where Google's Chrome can still access some of that information is with its reports system. This is an opt-in program for users to provide Google with crash reports and detailed information about what features they're using. Google has said this does not include any information from form fields, or from users' Google accounts. However, it does track what sites and search terms you've entered into the address bar.

Gmail--Google's Web mail service was one of the first Web mail services to provide contextual advertising, meaning it actually goes through your e-mail messages to give you advertisements that match up with a conversation you're having. Did you mention skiing in that last e-mail? Don't be surprised if you start seeing ads for local lift tickets or a new pair of ski boots.

Gmail also tracks what features users are using, including which settings are turned on and off, the themes they've chosen, and which ads they're clicking on. On the flip side, it does not share personal information with third parties; the only thing it gives to advertisers are the metrics on how many times their ads have been clicked.

Google Desktop--Google Desktop is sure to be a part of the Chrome OS. This software indexes all the content on your computer and makes it able to be searched and sorted, sometimes including Web search results from Google. It also indexes Web history, chats, e-mails, and information about your computer like what operating system you're using and the hardware configuration.

As far as usage goes, it can track which sites you're visiting in order to serve up personalized news. The software also has an opt-in "improvement" service that tracks crash reports, how many searches users are doing, and how long the software takes to pull them up.

Considering Google desktop is currently add-on software for Windows, Mac, and Linux (the latter of which the Chrome OS is being built off of), it will likely be more deeply integrated, and possibly something you cannot disable.

Google Checkout--Checkout is Google's online payment service. It lets customers pay for items using credit cards or bank accounts that are tied to their Google credentials. As far as collecting information goes, Google holds all of a customer's financial information on its servers including name, address, and account numbers. It also tracks how quickly they type in that information when making purchases, which account they used to pay for the good, and what that good was, giving the company a broad overview of a particular customer's purchasing habits.

For years Google has struggled to gain marketshare on incumbent PayPal, which has offered a similar Web payment system since the late 1990s. One area where PayPal has not ventured though is to the desktop. Google could easily ingrain Checkout into the OS, allowing users to make payments inside Chrome OS software, or to purchase applications in a similar fashion to how Apple has done it on the iPhone with its own app store.

Google Maps/Location--Google Maps and its related location-based services are one of the highest areas of interest for privacy advocates. Google Maps' Street View service provides 3D, street-level imagery of streets around the world, which is taken by camera-equipped vans that take photos of people and buildings. When Google rolled out its Street View service, faces were not blurred, however Google caved to privacy advocates and began doing so in early 2008.

The service can also locate where users are by obtaining information about what Wi-Fi routers or cell towers they're using to connect to the Web. This may be a standard part of the Chrome OS SDK, allowing applications that run on it to determine a user's location for various geographically-specific features. Many mobile applications are already doing this, including Evernote, which tags where each user note was created.

What to expect

Layers of data sharing. It's safe to assume that there will be many built-in ways to "share" some or all of your personal information with Google. Where the company's approach may differ from its other Web products is that it can get a far broader sense of what you're doing off its own properties, and even when offline.

Google typically has an all-or-nothing approach when it comes to what types of personal data it can harvest. When it comes to operating systems, however, a lot more of that information is localized. Google may offer a way to select certain parts of your application library, or hard disk that cannot be indexed or tracked in a similar fashion to what it does with its desktop search program.

Lots of toggles. To manage all these security and privacy options in one place it's likely there will be an extensive settings panel that lets users track what they are and are not sharing. Google may go so far as to make this more transparent with some sort of task bar that lets you change it on the fly, just like it's done with its privacy mode in the Chrome browser. Just imagine being able to open and use certain applications without the OS keeping track of you ever using them, the same way it treats visiting certain sites.

A deep usage tracking and reporting system. One of the most exciting (or potentially creepy) parts of this will be Google's approach to tracking how users are interacting with its OS. The company spends a considerable amount of time and resources on tracking user experience on its sites both with extended betas, and internal research studies. Having that same kind of tracking system baked into the OS can give Google a very simple way to see what's working and what's not.

As such, Google is likely to take a more extensive approach than Microsoft, which has a more limited system for tracking user activity on Windows. Users can opt in to a "customer experience improvement program" for Office, while Windows users have the option of sending information to Microsoft when applications or the entire operating system crashes. Google could go as far as keeping track of how long you keep your machine running at a time, or what times of day you use certain applications in order to create battery-saving hardware profiles.

More details about the Chrome OS, including privacy and licensing information are likely to be unveiled later this year when Google makes the code available as open source.