Months after the Aurora attacks in which attackers successfully penetrated Google systems by targeting a vulnerable version of Microsoft Internet Explorer, Google is phasing out the Windows operating system in favor of Mac and Linux machines.
- Josh Corman, Research Director, Enterprise Security Practice The 451 Group
According to a report in The Financial Times on Monday, Google is suspending internal use of Windows as part of an ongoing "security effort." Citing several Google employees, the paper reported that new hires at the search engine giant are limited to choosing Mac OS X or Linux computers. The paper said Google would not comment on its current policy.
Google and more than two dozen other enterprises were targeted in a wave of corporate attacks in January. Called Operation Aurora, the attackers used social engineering tactics and a flaw in Internet Explorer 6 to gain access to Google's corporate network and employee email accounts. Microsoft released an emergency update, repairing the vulnerable browser and blocking the attacks.
The move also comes ahead of the official launch of Google's lightweight Chromium OS, which is expected to be used in laptops, netbooks and mobile devices. When Google announced the new OS last July, the company touted its security features. Similar to the Chrome browser, Chrome OS will use the same sandboxed rendering engine, with much of the data storage located online. The sandbox approach isolates application processes from other operating system processes. All applications running in Chromium OS will be Web-based and can be subjected to the application sandboxing feature.
"The entire experience takes place within the browser and there are no conventional desktop applications. This means users do not have to deal with installing, managing and updating programs," according to Google's official announcement of the Chromium open source project.
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Some security experts doubt that Google would pull the plug on Windows entirely. Josh Corman, research director at The 451 Group said a perfectly secure OS is virtually unachievable. Even hardened Linux systems are so limited that they are unusable, he said.
"An operating system platform choice is a business decision not a security decision in most companies," Corman said. "That's a complex decision in which security may be a factor, but not the factor. "
It doesn't matter whether a company moves off one operating system in favor of another, Corman said. If an attacker wants to get into Google or any other enterprise, they will find a way.
"It would be mistake to say one OS is more secure than another," Corman said.
The Chrome browser is also automatically updated, a feature that is anticipated in the new Google OS. Security experts said the automated updates reduce user interaction and enable faster patch deployments. Both Microsoft and Apple issue automated updates for Windows and Mac OS X, but prompt the user to confirm the update.
Microsoft Windows and its Internet Explorer browser has been a favorite targeted of attackers, due to its vast market penetration. Microsoft recommends that enterprises upgrade end users to newer versions of its browser, but most firms have been slow to upgrade. Internet Explorer 7 and 8 include advanced security features that detect phishing attacks, isolate some browser ActiveX controls and limit processes running in memory, blocking many sophisticated attacks. Microsoft's latest OS, Windows 7, builds on the security features in Windows Vista and reduces user fatigue, a common issue cited in Vista. It simplifies the use of data encryption and adds a layer of authentication for administrative processes.
Security experts say Google Chrome's initial security advantage will be its low market share, making it a less lucrative targeted for attackers. Once the OS gains momentum, attackers could target other processes, including third-party browser components the security of which are fundamentally out of Google's control. In a recent review of Google Chrome's security features, SearchSecurity.com's Michael Cobb noted where Chrome may show some weaknesses.
"Google Chrome must support plug-ins, such as Flash Player and Silverlight, but these plug-ins are not designed to run in a sandbox. They require direct access to the operating system and peripherals, such as the user's webcam and microphone. This means Chrome can't currently run them in a sandbox," Cobb said.