Recent security flare-ups have caused major companies across the board to up the ante on product security and authentication. Forcing users to change their passwords more often has been the go-to solution, but that can actually be less secure if users have trouble remembering their passwords, as they end up writing them down or emailing them to themselves.
François Beaufort announced on a Google+ post in December that the Chromium OS team was working on "password free screen unlock" feature, noting that the proposal was made in November. In the initial code review it was referred to as chrome.screenlockPrivate, but it seems that the project has taken a new direction.
According to recent code commits (commit 1, commit 2) that were spotted by Android Police in the Chrome developer's channel, Chrome developers are working on an Easy Unlock feature for Chrome OS. The feature could allow a Chrome OS user to unlock their device by placing their phone in close proximity to their machine. Folks on the dev channel can "enable" the feature at: chrome://flags/#enable-easy-unlock, but nothing substantive will happen. The feature is still in its infancy, but there are a few things we can conclude.
In February, I wrote an article about Google's acquisition of SlickLogin, a startup founded by three graduates of the Israel Defense Forces' cybersecurity unit. SlickLogin's technology prompts a user's phone to emit a high-frequency sound that the computer will read as an authentication method. SlickLogin wasn't very well-known to the public and was acquired by Google before they even brought their product to market.
At the time Google purchased SlickLogin, it was also buying other security startups, such as Impermium, and it was unclear what the search giant had in store for the company. Now, it's apparent that Google's purchase of the Israeli startup was an acqui-hire play.
Based on the fact that the proposal was made in November 2013, it's safe to assume that Google had been courting SlickLogin long before the acquisition in February 2014; and they were probably targeting a company to assist with that feature. Combine that with SlickLogin's CEO changing his job title on LinkedIn to "Product Manager at Google" immediately after the announcement
While the concept of using a smartphone to unlock your personal computer may appeal to some consumers, I would argue that this feature is being developed to attract enterprise and education users. Chromebooks have already captured 20% of the education market, and Google has been moving steadily moving deeper into the enterprise.
Recently, Google has offered $100 off Chromebooks for business customers, VMWare support for Chromebooks, and even a Chromebox specifically for business. Easy Unlock will follow all of these offerings as simply another tool to get the enterprise on board with the idea of Chromebooks as laptops for business.
With all this being said, security woes are still keeping some enterprise adopters at bay. By increasing the perceived security its computer offerings, Google is hoping it can position Chromebooks as a viable, more secure replacement for XP and Windows 8 products.
While much of the reporting on Easy Unlock has lauded the feature as a one-step replacement for passwords, SlickLogin also positioned its technology to be used as part of a two-factor authentication system for added security. So, this could be used as a way for Google to offer a cool feature to consumers and higher security to the enterprise.
A Google spokesperson declined to comment.
- Google buys SlickLogin: Can sound waves solve the authentication problem?
- Is Google crowdsourcing the future of smartphone design with Project Ara?
- The three factors keeping Google from a full-scale enterprise assault
- Shopping for security: Israel's startups are catching the eye of tech heavyweights (ZDNet)
- Unfinished 'Easy Unlock' Feature Creeps Into Chrome OS Dev, Will Potentially Skip The Password Prompt If Your Phone Is Nearby (Android Police)
Conner Forrest has nothing to disclose. He doesn't hold investments in the technology companies he covers.
Conner Forrest is a Staff Writer for TechRepublic. He covers Google and startups and is passionate about the convergence of technology and culture.