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Google Oompa-Loompas dream of virus-free OS

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Google has rather rashly claimed its plans to develop an operating system promise an end to security woes.

The search giant said Google Chrome OS, due to debut in the second half of next year and initially targeted at netbooks, will be based on open source code and offer unprecedented security.

Sundar Pichai, VP of product management and Linus Upson, engineering director at Google, pledged an end to not just the need to run antivirus but of security updates more generally in a blog posting. The duo go on to boast that Google's sugar-coated OS will also offer speed, simplicity, an end to world hunger and an England Ashes win (we made the last two up).

Speed, simplicity and security are the key aspects of Google Chrome OS. We're designing the OS to be fast and lightweight, to start up and get you onto the web in a few seconds. The user interface is minimal to stay out of your way, and most of the user experience takes place on the web. And as we did for the Google Chrome browser, we are going back to the basics and completely redesigning the underlying security architecture of the OS so that users don't have to deal with viruses, malware and security updates. It should just work.

Carl Leonard, security research manager at Websense, describes Google's goals as commendable but essentially unachievable. He cited flaws in the Chrome browser as example of the kind of issue that were likely to effect Google as much as any other software developer.

"All software is susceptible to issues – it just depends on how much effort the malware author wants to go to and how much profit can be made," Leonard said. "Already we have seen vulnerabilities and issues with the Chrome browser, and Google even ran a contest in which two well-known security researchers found 12 exploitable security flaws in the company's Native Client system."

"Two of the top three security threats (SQL injection, browser vulnerability and rogue av) rely on software flaws so we know that it’s likely that malware authors will be looking for flaws in the Chrome OS to take advantage of from day one," he added.

Google Chrome OS, designed to run on both x86 as well as ARM chips, will run "within a new windowing system on top of a Linux kernel", Google explains. The project to develop a web-based OS for networks is separate from Android, Google's OS for mobile phones and devices such as set-top boxes.

Extended betas of Google's web apps, such as Gmail, incorporate technology to track user experience so its not that much of a stretch to imagine something similar might be incorporated into its Chrome OS, a factor that would have obvious privacy implications.

Graham Cluley, senior technology consultant at Sophos, said details published thus far suggest that apps would run inside a browser rather than getting installed. Such an approach might mix up the malware problem without eliminating it entirely.

"A lot of existing malware won't work but that still leaves potential problems from issues such as cross site scripting worms," Cluley told El Reg. "Storing data in the cloud also poses privacy concerns," he added.

Cluley described Google's security boasts as "marketing blurb" that ought not to to taken too seriously and certainly no reflection on the security expertise the search engine giant is able to call upon. ®

Internet Security Threat Report 2014

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