Whose Browser (or Phone, or Drone?!) Is It Anyway?

I’m not sure how many Chrome users follow any of the Google blogs that occasionally describe forthcoming updates to Google warez, but if you don’t you perhaps don’t realise quite how frequently things change. My browser, for example, is at something like version 40, even though I never consciously update it.

One thing I only noticed recently that a tab appeared in the top right hand of the browser showing that I’m logged in (to the browser) with a particular Google account. There doesn’t actually appear to be an option to log out – I can switch user or go incognito – and I’m not sure I remember even consciously logging in to it (actually, maybe a hazy memory, when I wanted to install a particular extension) and I have no idea what it actually means for me to be logged in?

Via the Google Apps Update blog, I learned today that being logged in to the browser will soon support is seemless synching of my Google docs into my Chrome browser environment (Offline access to Google Docs editors auto-enabled when signing into Chrome browser on the web). Following a pattern popularised by Apple, Google are innovating on our behalf and automatically opting us in to behaviours it thinks make sense for us. So just bear that in mind when you write a ranty resignation letter in Google docs and wonder why it’s synched to your work computer on your office desk:

Note that Google Apps users should not sign into a Chrome browser on public/non-work computers with their Google Apps accounts to avoid unintended file syncing.

If you actually have several Google apps accounts (for example, I have a personal one, and a couple of organisational ones: an OU one, an OKF one), I assume that the only docs that are synched are the ones on an account that matches the account I have signed in to in the browser. That said, synch permissions may be managed centrally for organisational apps accounts:

Google Apps admins can still centrally enable or disable offline access for their domain in the Admin console .. . Existing settings for domain-level offline access will not be altered by this launch.

I can’t help but admit that even though I won’t have consciously opted in to this feature, just like I don’t really remember logging in to Chrome on my desktop (how do I log out???) and I presumably agreed to something when I installed Chrome to let it keep updating itself without prompting me, I will undoubtedly find it useful one day: on a train, perhaps, when trying to update a document I’d forgotten to synch. It will be so convenient I will find it unremarkable, not noticing I can now do something I couldn’t do as easily before. Or I might notice, with a “darn, I wish I’d..” then “oh, cool, [kewel…] I can…).

“‘Oceania has always been at war with Eastasia.'” [George Orwell, 1984]

Just like when – after being sure I’d disabled or explicitly no; opted in to any sort of geo-locating or geo-tracking behaviour on my Android phone, I found I must have left a door open somewhere (or been automatically opted in to something I hadn’t appreciated when agreeing to a particular update (or by proxy, agreeing to allow something to update itself automatically and without prompting and with implied or explicit permission to automatically opt me in to new features….) and found I could locate my misplaced phone using the Android Device Manager (Where’s My Phone?).

This idea of allowing applications to update themselves in the background and without prompting is something we have become familiar with in many web apps, and in desktop apps such as Google Chrome, though many apps do still require the user to either accept the update or take an even more positive action to install an update when notified that one is available. (It seems that ever fewer apps require you to specifically search for updates…)

In the software world, we have gone from a world where the things we buy we immutable, to one where we could search for and install updates (eg to operating systems of software applications), then accept to install updates when alerted to the fact, to automatically (and invisibly) accepting updates.

In turn, many physical devices have gone from being purely mechanical affairs, to electro-mechanical ones, to logical-electro-mechanical devices (for example, that include logic elements hardwired into silicon), to ones containing factory programmable hardware devices (PROMs, programmable Read Only Memories), to devices that run programmable and then re</programmable firmware (that is to say, software).

If you have a games console, a Roku or MyTV box, or Smart TV, you’ve probably already been prompted to get a (free) online update. I don’t know, but could imagine, new top end cars having engine management system updates at regular service events.

However, one thing perhaps we don’t fully appreciate is that these updates can also be used to limit functionality that our devices previously had. If the updates are done seemlessly (without permission, in the background) this may come as something as a surprise. [Cf. the complementary issue of vendors having access to “their” content on “your” machine, as described here by the Guardian: Amazon wipes customer’s Kindle and deletes account with no explanation]

A good example of loss of functionality arising by an (enforced, though self-applied) firmware update was reported recently in the context of hobbiest drones:

On Wednesday, SZ DJI Technology, the Chinese company responsible for the popular DJI Phantom drones that online retailers sell for less than $500, announced that it had prepared a downloadable firmware update for next week that will prevent drones from taking off in restricted zones and prevent flight into those zones.

Michael Perry, a spokesman for DJI, told the Guardian that GPS locating made such an update possible: “We have been restricting flight near airports for almost a year.”

“The compass can tell when it is near a no-fly zone,” Perry said. “If, for some reason, a pilot is able to fly into a restricted zone and then the GPS senses it’s in a no-fly zone, the system will automatically land itself.”

DJI’s new Phantom drones will ship with the update installed, and owners of older devices will have to download it in order to receive future updates.

Makers of White House drone offer fix to bar Phantom menace from no-fly zones

What correlates might be applied to increasingly intelligent cars, I wonder?! Or at the other extreme, phones..?

PS How to log out of Chrome You need to administer yourself… From the Chrome Preferences Settings (sic), Disconnect your Google account.

Note that you have to take additional action to make sure that you remove all those synched presentations you’d prepared for job interviews at other companies from the actual computer…

Take care out there…!;-)


  1. Laura James (@LaurieJ)

    I ended up logged into chrome after installing an extension. Like you I couldn’t find a way to log out sensibly, but I did find some advanced privacy settings where I unticked all the sync options. I only hope that’s enough :)