Google phases out internal use of Windows

1 Jun 2010

Search giant Google is reportedly phasing out internal use of the Microsoft Windows operating system in the fallout of the cyber attacks on the company in China earlier this year. But could it be part of a wider battle between Google and Microsoft?

Google, which employs 10,000 people internationally, is understood to have instigated a semi-formal policy requiring all new hires to choose either a Mac OS computer or a PC loaded with Linux. Throughout the organisation, existing staff are understood to have been migrating away from Windows, according to a report in the Financial Times.

Attacks on Google’s internal servers emerged in January when chief legal counsel David Drummond revealed that Google and at least 20 other Western organisations based in China were hacked. It appeared the primary goal of the attackers was to access the Gmail accounts of Chinese human-rights activists.

Google’s China withdrawal

The attacks were enough to perturb Google into deciding to pull out of China entirely. However, it has emerged that the hacker attacks went further and deeper than originally revealed, not just stopping at Gmail accounts but actually at the core security of Google internationally.

The theft began when a Google employee in China, using Microsoft’s Messenger system, clicked on a link connecting to a ‘poisoned’ website which, unknown to the user, gave the intruders access to their personal computer and from there to a critical group of software developers at Google’s Silicon Valley headquarters.

Hours after announcing the intrusions, Google tightened up its cyber security, adding new layers of encryption to its Gmail services as well as its data centres and every workers’ PC.

However, it seems now that Google has gone even further and is phasing out internal use of Microsoft’s ubiquitous Windows operating system because of security concerns.

A directive to move to other operating systems began in January after the hack had emerged, and according to a report in the Financial Times could effectively end the use of Windows at Google.

Part of a bigger Microsoft battle?

But could the dramatic move be more of an opening move against Microsoft in a wider battle? Google already has smartphones equipped with its own Android operating system and new netbooks from Google, as well as TVs, and will soon enter the market with a Chrome-based operating system. Google has also been ramping up a campaign to encourage users to move away from Internet Explorer 6.

In January, in response to McAfee’s claim that vulnerability in Internet Explorer played an important role in the recent attack against Google China, Imperva CTO Amichai Shulman cast doubt over the assertion.

“First, why are Google employees using IE and not Google’s own browser, Chrome? This doesn’t make sense,” explained Shulman. “Second, to execute an attack this sophisticated, it likely occurred as a result of spear phishing Google employees to gain access to Google users’ credentials.

“A hacker would have to jump through many hoops inside an internal network. This requires network — not browser — vulnerabilities so that the attacker can communicate with malware inside Google’s internal network,” explained Shulman. “Unfortunately, blaming Microsoft is all too easy and it’s leading to a panic.”

Nonetheless, Google’s new hires are given the option of using Apple Mac computers or PCs running the Linux operating system. In early January, some new hires were still being allowed to install Windows on their laptops but it was not an option for their desktop computers, according to the Financial Times.

Employees who wish to stay on Windows require clearance from senior levels, even CIO approval, the report said.


John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years