Google Chrome: So secure we don’t need security?

With the launch announcements of various Google Chrome netbooks, the focus of the press and security companies alike is beginning to take a closer look at the security promises made and also at some of the more, um… media friendly statements such as “users don’t have to deal with viruses, malware and security updates”.

Let’s have a look at some of the security features of Chrome OS:

1 – Get out of my playpen. Each process runs in its own sandbox, effectively this means that if an application is malicious or compromised it is unable to interact with or otherwise affect other applications or processes on the system.

2 – Always up-to-date. Automatic updating, patches or feature updates will be downloaded and installed by default, this is a mandatory process designed to stop the user from opting themselves out of security.

3 – Always start with a clean slate. When Chrome OS is started up, it will check the integrity and validity of system files and if it detects any anomaly or unauthorised change, the system will revert to the known-good state, effectively neutralising any suspect activity at every reboot. The separation of user files and system files makes this a simple and effective process.

4 – (Almost) No desktop applications. Every application in Chrome OS will run inside the browser, discrete desktop applications will simply not exist; all apps are effectively web apps. The OS does afford the possibility of browser plug-ins locally so the end user still has some influence over the operating environment. These plug-ins of course will be sandboxed. Google has recently made a Software Development Kit available for the creation of Chrome “Native Apps”

5 – Nothing to see here. No user data is stored locally on Chrome machines. All user data is stored in the cloud and encrypted, theoretically data theft by malware or intrusion is made more complex.

So, what do I think? Well, the existence of the SDK seems to demonstrate that the “sterile environment” of an out-of-the-box Chrome netbook, may be about as long lived as an untouched Android device. Of course the sandboxing technology is designed to ensure that even a bad native app can’t misbehave.

Well, exploits that break out of sandboxing have already been demonstrated for Internet Explorer, for Java, for Google Android and of course for the Chrome browser (to name but a few), while the Google sandbox is effective, it is not impenetrable and to rely on it for 100% security would be short-sighted.

As regards the notion of the operating system always reverting to a known good state at reboot and the security afforded by encrypted data being stored in Google’s cloud, well surely that’s just moving the goalposts for the bad guys. For much of today’s malware, one of the primary goals is persistence.

This will be much more difficult (see how I hesitate to say impossible) in the Chrome environment, so the motivation will shift. If I can infect you for one session and steal your keys, well then I’ll get what I can while I’m in there and then continue accessing your stuff in the cloud, after all I’ve got your keys now, I don’t need your PC anymore. The beauty of that for criminals is that the victim may be even more unaware than they are now that they have been compromised.

While I applaud the impressive advances in security that are apparent in Chrome OS, to a certain extent we are seeing marketing history repeat itself. How often did the mantra that MacOS was immune to malware need to be repeated until the vast majority of users believed it and continue to do so, even after Apple went as far as incorporating rudimentary AV software into MacOS?

Criminal activity extends far beyond file-based threats, encompassing social engineering, phishing, social networks and email borne threats. The palette is continually expanding and the techniques are continually evolving, to assure your customers that they will not have to deal with online cybercrime, simply by switching OS is foolish to say the least.

As Solutions Architect for Trend Micro, Rik Ferguson interacts with CIOs from a wide variety of blue chip enterprises, government institutions, law enforcement organisations. Recognised as an industry thought leader and analyst, Rik is regularly quoted by the press on issues surrounding Information Security, Cybercrime and technology futures. With over 15 years experience in the IT Industry with companies such as EDS, McAfee and Xerox Rik’s broad experience enables him to have a clear insight into the challenges and issues facings businesses today.

  • So secure we don’t need security – NO.

    So secure we don’t need an anti-virus – YES absolutely.

    Chrome OS achieves its high level of security by not allowing any installation of applications and by checking the OS image against a clean OS image to see if it has been altered by a virus or worm every time it boots up. If you want to remove any virus infection from, Chrome OS, then you don’t need to install an anti-virus application – what you need to do is to reboot, and in installs a clean image downloaded from Google. 

    Installing an anti-virus program (if Chrome OS allowed you to) will decrease its stellar security rather than improve it because that will require you to allow installation of applications like Windows does. If you do that you open the way for installation/infection by viruses/trojans.