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Stallman blasts Google over Chrome OS privacy

Dec 20, 2010 — by LinuxDevices Staff — from the LinuxDevices Archive — views

Free Software Foundation (FSF) founder Richard Stallman criticized Google's cloud-oriented Chrome OS for placing too much legal control over data in Google's hands. Google fired back with a spirited defense, but industry analysts say that Stallman raises valid questions about privacy and legal rights in a cloud regime.

Richard Stallman, founder of the FSF and creator of the GNU open source operating system, has blasted Google's new Chrome Operating System and the cloud at large. Stallman told The Guardian that Chrome OS looks like a plan "to push people into careless computing" by forcing them to store their data in the cloud rather than locally on machines, where they can control the data. 

Stallman (pictured) added that "extensive use of cloud computing was "worse than stupidity" because it meant a loss of control of data.

"In the U.S., you even lose legal rights if you store your data in a company's machines instead of your own," Stallman continued. "The police need to present you with a search warrant to get your data from you; but if they are stored in a company's server, the police can get it without showing you anything. They may not even have to give the company a search warrant."

For its part, Google realizes going to the cloud means placing a tremendous amount of trust in the companies that hew to the cloud model. Rajen Sheth, group product manager for Google Enterprise, said Google isn't taking that lightly and disagrees that Chrome OS and the cloud are careless computing.

"We fully believe in the concept of cloud computing," Sheth said. "I think the number of businesses [Google has more than three million businesses using Google Apps] that have adopted cloud computing is evidence of the security, reliability, and the return on investment for moving to the cloud."

Chrome OS places trust in the cloud

Chrome OS is Google's minimalist, Linux-based operating system for netbooks. Linked closely to the cloud, it runs web applications in the Chrome web browser. Google stores these web apps on its servers and provisions them. Users access applications and data generated in Google's cloud through Chrome running on a notebook, and potentially, a tablet or smartphone. 

Chrome OS is currently being tested by thousands of people on Google's special Cr-48 notebook (pictured), which lacks local storage capabilities. Users are encouraged to give Google feedback as the company prepares the platform for a primetime launch on machines from Samsung and Acer in mid-2011.

When it comes to cloud computing and the idea that Chrome OS can be a reliable portal for that movement, people either like the idea or hate it. Chrome OS has several new security measures to safeguard user data, which is encrypted by default. There is also a verified boot process and sandboxing technology with which to expose plug-ins.

Citrix Systems, a company that buttered its bread provisioning local computer services for remote access, is on board for Chrome, even appearing at the Chrome OS soft launch this month to show its support. Citrix, which has 250,000 customers, could provide a great entry point for Chrome OS in the enterprises. Will consumers follow by buying Chrome OS notebooks next year? It's too early to tell, especially with tablet computers capturing mind share and market share of late.

IDC: Stallman makes "crucial legal argument"

IDC analyst Al Hilwa said Stallman makes a crucial legal argument related to data custody and control, which are significant concerns "when you think that corporations can be subject to governmental data audits without their knowing."

Even so, Hilwa believes the notion of hosting and managing workloads off premises — and charging users for it on an incremental basis without a perpetual license — is a legitimate business model that meets the requirements of many users in the industry.

"The question is how can privacy and data control norms or even laws can evolve to make these innovations more suitable for a broader audience," Hilwa said. "It is likely that without such evolution, cloud [computing] will eventually reach a glass ceiling of adoption."

Industry analyst Rob Enderle agreed, noting that the concept of the public cloud has a lot of risks that we generally don't talk much about. For example, Google users are daily ceding data to a company that is in the business of providing access to information not protecting it. He believes there should be enforced disclosure rules with regard to the rights Google and the user have over the data.

"People had trouble with sending their PCs in for repair and got really upset when they came back with new hard drives and no data," Enderle said. "Imagine what will happen if there is a catastrophic failure with regard to protecting their data online or if private files leak from this service onto the web. Particularly if it comes out that none of the Google executives would touch this service with their own private data with a ten foot pole. The next decade will be interesting for Google."

Clint Boulton is a writer for our sister publication eWEEK.

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