Chrome's password security insanity can be cured

Prompted by blow-up over Chrome's apathy about password security, expert urges Google to lock passwords with a master key

Google should lock up Chrome passwords with a master key to make casual thieves work harder, a security expert said Thursday.

"Google ought to at least be protecting the storage of [Chrome's password] data with a master password," said Andrew Storms, senior director of DevOps at CloudPassage, in an IM interview.

Storms was reacting to the blow-up this week after software developer Elliott Kember noticed that Chrome lets anyone with physical access to a computer easily spy and snoop on saved passwords.

Kember called Chrome's practice an "insane password security strategy."

Chrome stores passwords at the user's request, then recalls them automatically for site and service log-ins. A quick trip to the browser's address bar -- type "chrome://settings/passwords" there -- displays accounts, usernames and passwords.

Although the passwords are disguised with asterisks, one click on the "Show" button and the password appears in plain text.

Kember objected to Chrome's system. "There's no master password, no security, not even a prompt that 'these passwords are visible,'" he wrote. Anyone with access to the computer -- a co-worker, say, or a child or spouse on a shared system -- could easily pilfer passwords from the browser. "Today, go up to somebody non-technical. Ask to borrow their computer. Visit chrome://settings/passwords and click 'Show' on a few. See what they have to say," Kember said.

Chrome has always handled passwords this way, but the quick explosion of commentary on the Web signaled that few knew as much.

Google didn't help its case, or Chrome's long-touted reputation as a secure browser, when Jason Shuh, the browser's security tech lead, dismissed the complaints in a message on Hacker News, where he said the password access wasn't an oversight, but by design.

"We don't want to provide users with a false sense of security, and encourage risky behavior," Shuh said to the critics who wondered why Chrome did not, at least, require a second-level password -- a "master key" in the parlance -- to access the in-clear passwords. "We want to be very clear that when you grant someone access to your OS user account, that they can get at everything," Shuh added. "Because in effect, that's really what they get."

Storms didn't see it that way. And from the digital fisticuffs triggered by Shuh's comments, nor did most users.

Shuh was missing the point, said Storms. "Let's agree that one needs access to the computer where the passwords are stored," said Storms. "But they ought to be offering an additional layer of security, a master password, like Firefox does." Otherwise, he continued, there was no barrier to even spontaneous spying.

Google declined to comment on the brouhaha or whether it will react to the online beat down by changing Chrome's password handling.

Chrome password file
Click on the 'Show' button in Chrome's saved-password UI and anyone with access to the machine sees the goods.
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