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Is Google's Chrome Browser's Password Security Strategy 'Insane'?

A Web developer questioning the security of Chrome's password manager has reignited the debate over the use of browser-based password management systems. Are they safe?

For almost as long as there have been Web browsers, there have been Web browser mechanisms to help users store passwords for the sites they visit. The benefit of the password managers is ease of use for users, but inevitably in my experience, at one point or another, those browser-based password management systems fail in some way.

The latest browser to feel the wrath of users about a (possibly) insecure browser password manager is Google's Chrome. Web developer Elliott Kember blogged this week about what he called "Chrome's insane password security strategy." The basic complaint that Kember has is that the passwords can be viewed by the user in clear text that is not encrypted or hidden in any real sophisticated manner.

Kember's complaint made it onto the popular Hacker News site, where Justin Schuh, the Chrome browser security tech lead, responded in a somewhat unexpected manner.

"The only strong permission boundary for your password storage is the OS user account," Schuh commented. "So, Chrome uses whatever encrypted storage the system provides to keep your passwords safe for a locked account. Beyond that, however, we've found that boundaries within the OS user account just aren't reliable, and are mostly just theater."

As it turns out, Chrome's own FAQ provides an even clearer response as to why Google isn't worried about Kember's issue with the Chrome password manager.

The Google Chrome FAQ states:

"... there is no way for Chrome (or any application) to defend against a malicious user who has managed to log into your computer as you, or who can run software with the privileges of your operating system user account. ... Such an attacker has total control over your computer, and nothing Chrome can do would provide a serious guarantee of defense. This problem is not special to Chrome­—all applications must trust the physically-local user."

On that point I agree with Google, and that's also why I have long advised anyone who will listen to avoid the use of browser-based password management systems.

Chrome's current "issue" (whether or not it is a real issue is debatable) isn't the first time and it won't be the last time that browser password management systems are found to be lacking, though it is an issue I personally have not seen pop up all that much in the last six years or so.

Back in 2007, when we were only at Firefox (the most recent release is Firefox 23—time flies!), a security researcher argued with Mozilla over password manager flaws in the open-source browser. Those issues eventually were fixed, but the root concern still exists in my opinion—namely, that keeping passwords in your browser relies on your underlying operating system to be secure, which is not always a given.

So what should you do?

I know it's a pain and I might seem like a luddite for suggesting this, but just DON'T keep passwords in ANY browser management system. Inevitably there is a risk. We can debate what that risk is, but rest assured there is a risk.

Instead, keep passwords outside of the browser, perhaps even on a piece of paper (I know, but paper is a backup that doesn't rely on electrical power). The browser is our conduit to the Web around us, and I would argue that it is the most valuable target on any of our computing devices. The cliché saying is to not put all your eggs in one basket, and it's a truth that applies to using a browser to keep all your information in as well.

Sean Michael Kerner is a senior editor at eWEEK and Follow him on Twitter @TechJournalist.

Sean Michael Kerner

Sean Michael Kerner

Sean Michael Kerner is an Internet consultant, strategist, and contributor to several leading IT business web sites.