Privacy and Chromebook: an Oxymoron?

My wife  uses my hand-me-down Macbook Air (mid 2013), which she received when I bought my new(er) Macbook Air in early 2015 (wow, that went fast!). Hers is getting a bit quirky running updated OS, and the trackpad has been erratic responding to clicks since forever. So, we are near the point that a new laptop will be needed. She uses it exclusively for web browsing – no word processing or spreadsheet or anything. Maybe stores some photos downloaded from her cell phone. Hasn’t used even half the 120GB flash storage.

Being my frugal self, I can’t see spending $1000 (plus the 7% Commonwealth of PA extortion for the privilege of purchasing it online from another state/country) for a new one – 90% of the use is for online solitaire or jigsaw puzzles, with the occasional email or web search. So, I investigated Chromebooks, and found a reconditioned Acer Chromebook 14 with 32GMB flash storage, 4GB RAM, and a 14 inch full HD 1080 IPS screen for $155 shipping included! It arrived and I have been exploring it now for about a week.

I am impressed! The all aluminum case resembles the Mac’s stylishness. The screen is large, sharp and bright, way better than the old 13 inch Macbook Airs and awakens from sleep instantly. Pages also load instantly. It is easy to use. However, all this, as best I can tell, is dependent on my continuing (at least nominally) my gmail account and using the Chrome browser and Google’s search engine. I am invited to sync everything like payments and passwords across accounts and devices. No thanks. From what I have read, one can search using DuckDuckGo as I do on my Mac and can install and browse with Firefox, but both seem to function with extra hassles and cannot be made defaults. I am not surprised by this.

My most important question for the more learned of Ratburger is: say I use this machine to access my Protonmail account. I enter my username and password; would I then, in effect hand these over to Google? Does using Chrome, in effect, eliminate all privacy by making everything accessible to Google? This enterprise, I regard as an adversary – a self-appointed censor and manipulator of public opinion and news. I believe it to be inimical to individual liberty and free speech, as evidenced by the film The Creepy Line. One of the contributors to that film, a respected academic psychologist and researcher (and no conservative) has scientifically documented Google’s manipulation of search results and, for his efforts, had his accounts and all stored material disappear!

As a result of this and other reports, I have attempted to reduce my Google use and footprint. In addition to getting an answer to my question about usernames and passwords becoming available to them, I ask: can I use this excellent machine with an operating system other than Chrome? Would that defeat the seamless usability? This convenience is desirable – not essential – to me as an average-ability computer user, but it is essential to my wife – a self-described Luddite.

Thank you for answers to my questions, as well as any other thoughts or observations.

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Author: civil westman

Driven to achieve outward and visible things, I became a pilot, a doctor and a lawyer. Eventually, I noticed the world had still not beat a path to my door with raves. Now, as a septuagenarian I still work anesthesia part-time, fly my flight simulator to keep my brain sparking and try to elude that nagging, intrusive reminder that my clock is running out. Before it does, I am trying, earnestly, to find a theory of everything - to have even a brief "God's-eye" view of it all before the "peace which passeth all understanding."

13 thoughts on “Privacy and Chromebook: an Oxymoron?”

  1. EThompson:

    civil westman:
    Being my frugal self

    I hear that after spending $900 dollars on a Samsung 1o phone which I hated so I downgraded to an 8 and saved $400 dollars. And I still don’t get this phone…

    When I first started using computers (age 40 or so) I was overwhelmed by all the choices as to every aspect of using them. I was saying for years: “why do they make these things so complicated with trying to be all things to all people? Why not limit the choices and make them simpler to use? It seems that was the approach taken – 30 or so years later – in making Chromebooks.

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  2. civil westman:
    My most important question for the more learned of Ratburger is: say I use this machine to access my Protonmail account. I enter my username and password; would I then, in effect hand these over to Google? Does using Chrome, in effect, eliminate all privacy by making everything accessible to Google?

    In short, nobody knows.  In principle, when you establish a connection to ProtonMail over TLS (Transport-Layer Security—normally seen as an https: URL), there is end-to-end encryption with strong protection against subtle threats such as “man in the middle” attacks.  But TLS and other secure access schemes assume your local platform is secure: that’s where your private (secret) keys are stored, and where you enter the keystrokes to unlock them if password protected.  If you can’t trust that platform, then there’s no way to know that it isn’t sending your secret key (which at the critical moment is stored in the clear in local memory) or the password, captured with a key grabber, to the Ministry of Freedom.

    That said, there are a lot of eyeballs looking over what popular platforms such as Chromebooks are doing.  Certainly, there are people running Wireshark to see if any obvious “phone home” traffic is occurring, and most of the software run on Chromebook is open source and thus subject to independent audit.  Given that discovery of an intentional back-door would be devastating to Google’s reputation and that of their products, I doubt there is one.  Most security breaches in the last decade have been due to flaws in software design and implementation, and that is a risk you run on any platform.

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  3. civil westman:

    EThompson:

    civil westman:
    Being my frugal self

    I hear that after spending $900 dollars on a Samsung 1o phone which I hated so I downgraded to an 8 and saved $400 dollars. And I still don’t get this phone…

    When I first started using computers (age 40 or so) I was overwhelmed by all the choices as to every aspect of using them. I was saying for years: “why do they make these things so complicated with trying to be all things to all people? Why not limit the choices and make them simpler to use? It seems that was the approach taken – 30 or so years later – in making Chromebooks.

    Exactly! Less is always more.

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  4. Some further thoughts on your post civil; the complications of computers and cells for people who are not John Walker (!) cost money. I have to pay a full-time IT specialist because my software/hardware/and phones change their technology every month. I guess I should be happy that a new business has been born, but I’m not!

    I’m a trader and I spend more time on the tech than on the stock portfolio and analyzing quarterly earnings. Not good.

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  5. John Walker:
    That said, there are a lot of eyeballs looking over what popular platforms such as Chromebooks are doing.  Certainly, there are people running Wireshark to see if any obvious “phone home” traffic is occurring, and most of the software run on Chromebook is open source and thus subject to independent audit.  Given that discovery of an intentional back-door would be devastating to Google’s reputation and that of their products, I doubt there is one.

    This is the only real constraint on Google Chrome and Chromebooks. The downside risk is too big for them to chance it.

    Facebook, YouTube (Google), and Twitter, on the other hand, don’t have this kind of independent scrutiny. As described in The Creepy Line, Facebook’s algorithms are opaque yet influential. The same applies to Twitter and YouTube. Only a whistleblower could provide visibility. Given that many people get their news from from these sources, the potential for abuse is palpable and would have serious political and other consequences.

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  6. drlorentz:
    Given that many people get their news from from these sources, the potential for abuse is palpable and would have serious political and other consequences.

    Google News search result bias was confirmed in a fascinating study by Northwestern professor Nicholas Diakopoulos.   Half of all views of news articles were influenced by Google.   64 percent of those views were pushed towards more Leftish sources by Google’s presentation:

    https://www.cjr.org/tow_center/google-news-algorithm.php

     

    Discussion at these sites:

    https://www.foxnews.com/opinion/dan-gainor-yes-google-censors-conservatives-even-liberal-journalists-now-admit-it

    https://amgreatness.com/2019/05/09/stop-whining-about-google-and-do-something/

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  7. MJBubba:
    Google News search result bias was confirmed in a fascinating study by Northwestern professor Nicholas Diakopoulos.

    Here’s a simple example of blatant Google bias in autocomplete, versus DuckDuckGo. Let’s say you’ve heard the expression “crooked Hillary” and want to check it out. Just eight letters plus a space gets you nothing on Google but third position in DuckDuckGo:

    Four more letters are required to turn up anything on Google, and then only one suggestion. On DuckDuckGo, it’s a cornucopia:

    Move along, folks. Nothing to see here.

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  8. civil westman:
    “why do they make these things so complicated with trying to be all things to all people? Why not limit the choices and make them simpler to use?

    I think the only complication is how sad you will be when they cancel all your features so that my features become simple and easy! 🙂

    Seriously, Chromebooks are a nice, cheap, good quality option for a lot of people.

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  9. civil westman:
    My most important question for the more learned of Ratburger is: say I use this machine to access my Protonmail account. I enter my username and password; would I then, in effect hand these over to Google? Does using Chrome, in effect, eliminate all privacy by making everything accessible to Google?

    In principle, the most dangerous thing that could happen to you is that your browser, being compiled and provided to you by Google, could be storing up your Protonmail (and other) logins and passwords, and at some time allowing Google to access the data.

    In practice, you probably don’t have to worry about this.  First, there are organizations and people who scrutinize Chrome executables, searching for backdoors such as this, and to date none have been found. Second, it is highly unlikely (to the point of metaphysical certitude!) that Google as a company would want to do this, since it would destroy them if it was ever discovered.  As a practical matter I’ve worked with some Google security people before and they seem to be rabidly committed to maintaining their users’ security and privacy.

    This is of course a different issue than the question of whether their politics influence their news coverage, etc.

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  10. Damocles:
    As a practical matter I’ve worked with some Google security people before and they seem to be rabidly committed to maintaining their users’ security and privacy.

    Except that they read each and every Gmail sent or received (including drafts), every Google Doc, every item stored on Google Drive, every entry in Google Calendar. Other than that, they totally respect your privacy. That is, they respect your privacy as they see fit, according to company policy. This does not impugn the integrity of any individual Google employee, at least those at the working level.

    It’s not for nothing that they had to drop their motto don’t be evil in favor of right up to the creepy line, whence comes the title of the documentary mentioned in the OP. Don’t take my word for it: from Eric Schmidt’s lips to your ears.

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  11. They don’t have to store your credentials because they don’t need to read your mail.  They know who you talk to and when, from where.   The metadata is more damaging than the data.

    You may safely assume that Google and their peers know that we are all Ratburghers, and that your YouTube feed and search results are being tuned accordingly.  They don’t even need you to get a Google account to track you.  You leave tracks from one end of the web to the other when you do the simplest things, and it is trivial to correlate those tracks once you have a large enough dataset.

    That’s their business model.

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