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Is Google becoming Big Brother?

“I’m sorry Dave, I can’t do that,” said HAL the omnipotent computer in the movie “2001: A Space Odyssey.” The computer’s every-seeing eye looking back at Dave resembles so closely the Google Chrome icon that the comparison is eerie. If that’s not enough to make you wonder what the company has in store next, read on.

By now, you’ve probably heard that Google is out to KO Microsoft with its own version of a computer operating system (OS). Right now the OS is targeted strictly at netbooks, but could laptops and desktops be far behind? The killer news isn’t that someone is going toe-to-toe with MS, but that Google’s OS will be free. What’s better than free, right? Nothing’s free. There’s always a price.

The company announced partners in the new project that include Acer, Adobe, ASUS, Freescale, Hewlett-Packard, Lenovo, Qualcomm, Texas Instruments and Toshiba. First reports say that the focus of the OS will be to provide users with a much faster Internet experience. That’s not surprising because Google lives or dies by the Web.

Fox in sheep’s clothing

Clearly, Google isn’t going to just release something that looks like MS Windows. Any Google product is going to reflect the company’s version of what a user experience should be. And, that will obviously include an integrated set of Google-driven Web apps, everything from e-mail to spreadsheets. Number one on the list of performance features will be Internet accessibility, which means speed. Chrome OS will certainly let users quickly access a Web browser.

Early reports say that non-Web applications would probably not be provided by Google, but instead provided by third parties. Google’s vision is that the user turns on the system, launches a browser and then does their computing via online applications. The user’s data would be saved in the cloud, rather than on the computer’s local drive. The company believes that users benefit from cloud storage because their data will be accessible no matter where they are located, and the user will not have to worry about lost data or backing up files.

For those concerned about security and viruses, Google said it will be “completely redesigning the underlying security architecture of the OS.” Said the company, “Speed, simplicity and security are the key aspects of Google Chrome OS.” The OS will be fast and lightweight to start up and get you onto the Web in a few seconds. Considering that Google has a range of apps and that the OS will be targeted at netbooks, this all fits together.

I’m watching everything you do

What strikes me as creepy is that the company’s plans were replayed in a CNET article by Josh Lowensohn. The writer addressed various ways the Google OS could act as a Web Big Brother. Think, “I know where you’ve been, what you’ve done, when you did it, who you did it with, and what you paid for it …”

Google has always wanted to be your search engine. Why? Because it gets to serve you with advertisements. Not just any advertisements, but personalized ads. If you are logged into Google, the company tracks your every click. It archives the time and day of all the sites you visit. Even if you refuse to create a Google account, it can still store cookies on your machine, which help it know where you’ve gone and what you’ve looked at. Now, if you had a netbook with a Google Chrome OS, once you log onto your machine, you could be simultaneously logged into a Google account and from that point forward, every click, every program used and every location visited could be stored. Google would be creating a profile on you for which advertisers will dearly love to pay.

Google got burned by overreaching when it initially released Chrome. Early users were forced to agree to the company’s Of Service (TOS) before the browser could be activated. What many failed to notice was that by agreeing to the TOS, which you had to do if you wanted to use Chrome, you gave Google full license to any content that went through your browser! Therefore, if you uploaded a photo, a video or even text, you automatically gave Google full rights to use the essence for whatever Google wanted. The company was later forced to change the TOS when the Internet community discovered the unrestrained rights Google was demanding. However, nothing is to say a new OS couldn’t also come with similar expansive TOS requirements.

There are other examples of Google’s already intrusive monitoring practices. The company’s e-mail program, Gmail, scans and stores every word in every e-mail you generate. If you mention dogs, don’t be surprised when dog food advertisements start appearing. If you don’t mind dog commercials, I suppose that’s okay. But what if you’d used the abbreviation for Edward (Ed)? Perhaps he’s your brother. Would you just as happily receive advertisements for Erectile Dysfunction treatments?

The Google desktop is little more than another sticky note of all your activities. Through the desktop, Google tracks all of your Web history, chats, e-mails, even details about your computer. Should this function be built-in to Chrome OS, it might not be possible to defeat its reporting functions.

With location tracking, your position can be tracked not just by IP address, but also by the nearest Internet router or cell tower. This may be great if you need to find the closest gas station, but less so if you’d rather remain anonymous.

Big enough to say no

Some of us have worried that government would become Big Brother, watching every step we take. While that’s likely to happen under new security regulations, Google’s omnipresence could be even more intrusive.

I’d be careful how much information I am willing to trade for what a company calls an improved consumer experience. That experience might more resemble what happened when Dave, in the movie “2001,” asked HAL to open the outside door to the space capsule. The all-knowing, all-seeing, all-powerful computer told him no. Google might not say no, but it could subject you to another commercial before it accepts the next mouse or key click.

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