Like all sensible Windows users, my PC has several anti-malware programs. I have two firewalls (ZoneAlarm and the Windows XP one), a dedicated antivirus, several anti-spyware programs, root kit removers, programs for assessing the processes that I am running, and so on. My browser has custom security settings and various add-ons to combat nasty scripts and such. Windows itself has more patches on it than a hobo’s jacket. In short, my computer has a massive defense system that I have cobbled together. It would, of course, be nice to not have to deal with all this stuff-it clogs up the memory and robs my PC’s CPU. Plus, there is the worry that some new malware will manage to get through and do bad things. Google promises that its Chrome OS will do away with all this. Allegedly, “users don’t have to deal with viruses, malware and security updates.” While that is a wonderful promise, cam Google deliver?
One thing that indicates that Google might not be able to do so is the fact that the Chrome browser and Googles other software are not immune to malmare (technically, viruses are now considered malware). Of course, Google can point a finger at the other operating systems that their programs run under and cast some (but obviously not all) blame on them. If Google controls the whole OS, then perhaps they can create that perfect system.
Google can, of course, do many things to make their OS resistant. First, they are building Chrome on Linux and that provides them with a well researched base from which to begin. They can avail themselves of all the work that has been done securing Linux-thus starting out with a “new” OS that is well grounded on years of development by many private and public organizations. Second, by basing Chrome on Linux they gain the same sort of defense that Apple enjoys-fewer users means fewer efforts made to create malware. Of course, if Chrome becomes big, we can expect a surge in malware development for Linux. However, even combining all existing versions of Linux together, they hardly make a dent in Windows’ empire of domination.
Second, Chrome can make use of various security methods that will help a great deal. For example, Chrome can severely limit what the OS can and cannot do, thus reducing the sort of damage that malware can do. Windows Vista tried to do this via a rather annoying system and Google will need to make its security system both more effective and less annoying than that of Vista. Chrome also might make use of virtual computers to handle risky tasks, thus sandboxing some malware and keeping their damage in check. Of course, this would also have to be implemented in an effective and easy to use way.
Third, despite all the hype about being a Windows killer, Chrome seems to be aimed at providing cloud computing on netbooks. By limiting the purpose of the OS relative to the “do it all” Windows, perhaps Google can have a much more secure system. Of course, this would seem to limit Chrome’s appeal and its market share. After all, most users are not using netbooks and the cloud is still mainly, well, a puffy cloud of ideas and dreams.
While Google can make a secure OS, the dream that users will not need to worry about malware will most likely remain just a dream. After all, the OS has to run programs and that makes it possible for malware to run. After all, they are programs as well. Writing into the OS code a way to prevent every possible malware operation seems to be an impossibility. No doubt some clever mathematical wizard can work out some law or formula that expresses this fact. Adding to the challenge is that some malware is not distinguished by its code, but by its purposes. For example, a program that downloads files to your PC from the net can be beneficial (your software checking automatically for updates) or malicious (malware downloading even more malware).
Another factor ensuring that Chrome will not be malware immune is the fact that people make mistakes and do not foresee everything. As such, it is certain that there will be vulnerabilities and exploitable parts of the Chrome code. After all, almost anything that a user must be able to do can be something exploitable. The only perfectly secure OS would be one that did nothing at all.
My view, at least until Google proves me wrong, is that Chrome will have vulnerabilities and will need patches. After all, unless Google has God coding for them, there will be imperfections in Chrome and that means vulnerabilities.
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Charles Kress says
You raise some interesting points on Chrome. It reminds me of something i read in the book Chaos. At one point IBM was trying to figure out the best way to deal with noise in the signal path. They believed that making the signal stronger was the best way to deal with noise, but as it turns out noise is actually a chaos phenomena. Thus the efficient way to deal with it is error correction.
It seems to me that regardless of the operating system, the more that people use it, the more the “bad guys” will look for loop holes and find ways to cause problems. This is why the Apples OS is relativly free of problems. It’s not that widely used, so not worth the time to go after. But by the same token, Since Windows is widely used, most of the best apps are written for it.
One could also say that problems that require patches are a form of evolutionary pressure to evolve and improve.
Michael LaBossiere says
There is something to be said for such constant pressure. As you noted, this can lead to the evolution of software via improved design.
In the case of operating systems, popularity is something of a curse (but a most welcome curse). As has been noted, the bigger the user base, the more incentive there is to work at cracking into the OS in order to do misdeeds. I rather miss the days when hacking was mostly just a nerdy way of showing off-now it is a big business. In some ways, it is analogous to how most organized crime starts off: first, amateurs doing something on the side. Then, eventually, large organizations devoted to making money.