August 08, 2013, 1:51 PM — Google is taking some serious heat for the way Chrome can reveal all your saved passwords to anyone--anyone!--with access to your computer. Yet Google has defended the move, with Chrome's security tech lead arguing that further password protection measures would only provide a "false sense of security."
The issue has to do with the way Chrome stores passwords that the user has decided to save. All of these passwords are the listed in chrome://settings/passwords. Clicking on a password in this list, and then clicking the "Show" button, exposes the password in plain text.
This isn't a new "feature" of Chrome, but it was brought to light recently by software developer Elliot Kember.
"[Users] don't expect it to be this easy to see their passwords," Kember wrote in a blog post. "Every day, millions of normal, every-day users are saving their passwords in Chrome. This is not okay."
Justin Schuh, head of Chrome security, defended the practice, saying that if someone has access to your computer and OS-level account, your security is already compromised. At that point, Schuh said, an attacker could install malware at the system level or access other sensitive data. "Beyond that, however, we've found that boundaries within the OS user account just aren't reliable, and are mostly just theater," Schuh wrote.
Schuh has a point in terms of fending off serious attackers. But what about more casual snooping--say, by an untrustworthy friend, sibling, spouse or co-worker? It seems unlikely that any of those users would go so far as to install malware, but a quick glance at someone's Facebook or Twitter password doesn't seem out of the question. Schuh doesn't address that point.
Here's the other problem with Schuh's logic: He sees Chrome merely as software that exists within another operating system. But increasingly, Chrome is an operating system within an operating system, hosting troves of sensitive data in Web apps like Dropbox and Google Drive. Someone with brief access to your computer might be able to glance at these apps, but someone with your passwords could continually monitor your accounts from any other machine. Chrome makes it easy for the people near you to get those passwords.
Stop the madness
If any of this sounds disturbing, you have a couple options: First, you can avoid saving passwords in Chrome by going to Settings > Advanced Settingsand unchecking the "Offer to save passwords" box under "Passwords and forms." Click "Manage saved passwords" to its right to dive in and clear out all the passwords Chrome has saved already, or just to see this "vulnerability" in action.
If you hate re-entering passwords, consider using a password manager like LastPass or Keepass, or you could sign in to Websites using Google, Facebook or Twitter authentication when possible--though that opens a new can of worms if someone malicious manages to seize your social media profile. The other option is to "Disconnect your Google account" in Chrome's settings whenever you are letting someone else borrow your computer.
Ideally, though, Google should just add another sign-in requirement when a user tries to view passwords. That won't stop a hacker with access to your PC, but it'll keep out prying eyes at no major expense to the user. Firefox, which also displays saved passwords in plain texts, gives users a "Master Password" option that does just that--though only if you take the time to set up the feature.