Google's mantra is "Don't be evil." Let's hope it the tech giant means it, because if Chrome OS succeeds in replacing Windows at the world's dominant operating system, Google's sway over the computing world could be exponentially higher than it is today.
Now, I'm not suggesting that Google's Web-centric OS is a nefarious, 1984-esque plot to subjugate the human race -- or at least the 1.7 billion (and rising rapidly) people who use the Internet. But Google already knows more about many of us than we may know. A few examples:
· Gmail: Google scans your not-so-private e-mail, and displays text ads based on keywords that appear in your messages.
· Street View: A feature of Google Maps that lets you explore city streets from a driver's or pedestrian's vantage point. Although Google blurs faces and license plates, Street View has raised privacy concerns in many countries, most recently in Switzerland. Some critics are concerned that car-mounted Street View cameras can peek into homes.
· Latitude: Google's GPS mapping service will track where you've been, and alert you when friends are nearby. One optional feature: Your location and photo will appear on the maps of other Latitude users.
· Docs: Google's browser-based productivity suite stores your files in The Cloud, which means on the company's servers. Docs users can save all of their documents online, including files that may contain banking, credit, and Social Security numbers, as well as other sensitive personal information.
· Social Search: An experimental tool from Google Labs that displays your friends' "public content," such as tweets and blog comments, at the bottom of your search results. Be careful what you write; your pals may be watching.
· Dashboard: Ostensibly a tool that addresses privacy concerns by showing how much Google knows about you, Dashboard raises a new set of security issues. If your Google account is hacked, for instance, Dashboard provides the attacker with a cornucopia of personal data about you.
Which brings us to Chrome OS. Designed initially for portable computers such as netbooks and tablet devices, the operating system will no doubt steer more users toward Google's growing stable of information services. This in turn will increase the company's already sizable influence over the online ecosystem.
Google thus far has shown itself to be mostly a benign giant, but the potential for abuse is there. The company has been willing to compromise its ethics -- such as by censoring search results in China -- in order to do business with governments that have little interest in free speech. And while Google's current management team may very well adhere to the "Don't be evil" code, there's no guarantee that future caretakers will be as responsible.
It's good to see a third competitor challenging Microsoft and Apple in the consumer OS market. But the Big Brother possibilities of a Google-dominated world remain a concern.