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Google clamps down on password security in Chrome 'Canary'

Reaction to August brouhaha over Chrome's practice of letting anyone see passwords in plain text

November 5, 2013 02:25 PM ET

Computerworld - Google has begun work on shutting a hole in its Chrome browser that lets casual thieves steal website and Web service passwords.

According to François Beaufort, who frequently uncovers new features and changes in early builds of Google's browser, the "Canary" version of Chrome for OS X now includes a setting that locks down saved passwords.

Canary password re-authentication
By clicking 'Enable' in the 'chrome://flags' screen of Canary on the Mac, users can lock down password viewing.

Canary is the name for the very-earliest version of the browser, one still in the Chromium channel, the open-source project that feeds code to Chrome.

By setting a special flag in Canary on the Mac, anyone who tries to view browser-saved passwords will instead be asked to enter the OS X user account password.

Computerworld confirmed that, once the flag is set, Canary will not show saved passwords in plain text without the additional OS X user account password, the same one needed to make major changes in the operating system's settings or approve the installation of software.

To set the flag, users must enter "chrome://flags" (minus the quotation marks) in the browser's address bar, then change the setting "Password Manager Reauthentication Mac" by clicking on the "Enable" link. The change takes effect after the browser is relaunched.

The additional security is a reaction to an August kerfuffle after software developer Elliott Kember noticed that Chrome let anyone with physical access to a computer easily spy and snoop on saved passwords.

Chrome had always handled passwords in that way -- letting anyone with access view passwords saved by the browser -- but the explosion of commentary on the topic signaled that few knew as much.

For its part, Google defended the practice, with Jason Shuh, the browser's security tech lead, saying, "We don't want to provide users with a false sense of security, and encourage risky behavior" when asked why Chrome did not require a second level of authentication. "We want to be very clear that when you grant someone access to your OS user account, that they can get at everything. Because in effect, that's really what they get," Shuh said then.

Other security experts disagreed, and urged Google to do something.

Features added to Canary usually, although not always, make it into the Dev channel -- the roughest-edged of Chrome's three distributions -- and from there into the Beta and Stable channels.

Google did not immediately reply to questions, including whether the OS X change would be adopted by Chrome on its other platforms, Windows and Linux, and when users could expect the additional authentication option to reach the production-grade build, Chrome Stable.

covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at Twitter @gkeizer, on Google+ or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed Keizer RSS. His email address is gkeizer@computerworld.com.

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