I must admit that I love my Chromebook computer. I am using it more and more every day, including right now as I write this article in Microsoft Word Online. This low-cost ($150 to $500 US) powerhouse does almost everything I ever want to do on a computer. I am also impressed with the privacy and security that the Chromebook provides.
Of all the consumer-grade operating systems available today, most security experts will tell you that Linux is the most secure of all. That is especially true of the more security-focused “distributions” of Linux, such as Tails, Security Enhanced Linux (often called SELinux, developed by the NSA’s Trusted Systems Research Group ), Ubuntu Privacy Remix (UPR), or Whonix. All of these are designed to protect your private information and to keep out spies and hackers.
I am not aware of any published studies comparing the security of Chromebooks versus any version of Linux. However, after using both Chromebooks and Linux for several years, I find that numerous facts lead me to believe that Chromebooks also provide very high privacy and security, possibly even better than Linux. No computer, not even a Chromebook, is 100% secure, but a Chromebook probably is the most secure consumer computer you can buy off the shelf today.
Here are a few facts to consider:
1. The Chromebook’s kernel (the heart of the operating system) is based on the Linux kernel. To be sure, it has been modified. However, that is still a good place to start.
2. The basic design of a Chromebook is to save all its data in cloud-based file storage services, not inside the Chromebook itself. Since the information is not stored in the Chromebook, online hackers and spies who access the Chromebook remotely or even a thief who physically steals a Chromebook cannot access that information. Nobody can access anything that isn’t there.
Certain kinds of files, including downloads, cookies, and browser cache files, may still be present on the computer. The Chromebook encrypts this data by using tamper-resistant hardware, making it very difficult for anyone to access those files. In fact, for 99.9% of the hackers, accessing that little bit of encrypted information is impossible. Even if they do manage to access it, which is doubtful, that information doesn’t contain very much useful information for a hacker.
NOTE #1: The total security of all the data also depends heavily on the security provided with the cloud-based file storage services. However, several of today’s super-high-security file storage services work well with a Chromebook, including Mega.nz, SpyderOak, Tresorit, and probably others. A Chromebook’s default is to store files in Google Drive. There is a good level of security in Google Drive, but it doesn’t begin to approach the security of Mega.nz, SpyderOak, or Tresorit. Anyone concerned about security will want to use one of the super-high-security file storage services instead.
NOTE #2: It is possible to save files locally within the Chromebook itself. However, that is not the default, and I suspect that most Chromebook owners never save files locally. The big advantage of a Chromebook is its storage of files in a secure, encrypted cloud file storage service, where those files are available to the user from any computer, tablet, or smartphone.
By selecting a super-high-security file storage service, security and privacy will be as high as, or even higher than, any Linux, Macintosh, or Windows computer’s internal file system. Saving your files locally within the Chromebook seems to defeat all the conveniences as well as making your files accessible to a thief who can easily steal the entire computer. (I know what I am writing about; I had a Windows laptop stolen from the trunk of my automobile a few years ago, and the thief easily gained access to all my files on its hard drive. Storing those files in the cloud would have been much safer. Thanks to that experience, I have now learned to store almost everything in encrypted, high-security services in the cloud. I also have encrypted the entire hard drive on my replacement laptop.)
3. Chromebooks manage updates automatically, so they are always running the latest and most secure version of the Chrome operating system.
4. A Chromebook never gets infected by viruses or so-called “Trojan horse” malevolent software. If a really clever future hacker ever figures out a way to install viruses or “Trojan horse” software on a Chromebook in the future, the programmers who produce the Chrome operating system assure us they can locate the weakness, fix it, and automatically roll out new security updates to prevent future occurrences of the problem within a very few days. That is better security than any Macintosh computer and much, much better than Windows.
5. On a Chromebook, each web page and application runs in a restricted environment called a “sandbox.” If the Chromebook is directed to an infected page, it can’t affect the other tabs or apps on the computer or anything else on the machine. The threat is contained.
6. Even if malware manages to escape the sandbox, the Chromebook is still protected. Every time the Chromebook starts up, it does a self-check called “Verified Boot.” If it detects that the system has been tampered with or corrupted in any way, typically it will repair itself without any effort, taking the Chromebook back to an operating system that’s as good as new.
7. If anything goes wrong with a Chromebook, you can simply push a button or use a quick keyboard combination to enter recovery mode and restore the operating system to a known good version. That is much easier and more effective than trying to do a restore on Windows, Linux, or Macintosh!
If you are presently using Windows, Linux, or the Macintosh macOS operating system, you might want to know that the low-cost Chromebook’s ChromeOS operating system is leaps and bounds more secure than what you are using today. How important is the privacy and security of YOUR information?
NOTE 3: Everything I have written about Chromebooks also applies to Chromeboxes. In fact, a Chromebook and a Chromebox are essentially the same thing but with one important difference: a Chromebook is a laptop computer while a Chromebox is a desktop system.
A typical Chromebox is a small box that sits on your desk, is powered by a wall outlet (not batteries) and requires an external monitor, external keyboard, and external mouse. At first glance, it resembles a typical Windows desktop computer or possibly a Mac Mini.
The Chromebooks and Chromeboxes all run the same ChromeOS operating system. From a software, security, and privacy view, they are identical.
NOTE 4: The FREE Microsoft Office Online Apps offer a limited, Web-based version of the four major Office applications—Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and OneNote—and you don’t have to have the desktop software or an Office 365 subscription to use them. See http://bit.ly/2nRRJmD for details. These free Microsoft Office Online Apps work well on a Chromebook. A number of other word processors and office productivity programs work on Chromebooks as well. Admittedly, I prefer to use Zoho Writer, a free word processing application available at: https://www.zoho.com/docs/writer.html. I find Zoho Writer to be easier to use than any version of Microsoft Word and it has most of the features of the expensive Microsoft Word, although not all of them.
NOTE 5: Yes, there is one personal computer operating system that is even more secure than a Chromebook. But you probably won’t like it. Qubes OS is a Linux based, security-oriented and open-source operating system for personal computers, which runs everything inside virtual machines. In so doing, it isolates each program in such a manner that one program cannot affect another one.
While Qubes OS is based on Linux, it isn’t really a normal variation of Linux. It is so heavily modified that many Linux programs will not work on it. Neither do any Windows or Macintosh programs. Technically, Qubes OS can run Windows or Linux in a separate windows as a “slave operating system.” However, doing so re-introduces all the security problems of the slave operating system. In other words, if you want the benefit of Qubes security, don’t run Windows or Linux on Qubes OS!
NOTE 6: The typical Chromebook or Chromebox computer costs between $150 to $500 US, depending upon the options, processor speed, screen size, and other factors. I suspect most Chromebook owners spend between $150 to $300 for their laptop systems. Chromeboxes are a bit cheaper: $125 to $200 US but, of course, the new Chromebox owner then has to supply an external monitor, keyboard, and mouse.
NOTE 7: This article was written with a Chromebook.