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Google plots Chrome web password maker

How the secrets are stored and recovered is another matter

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Google is developing a password-generating tool that will bolt into its Chrome browser.

The technology is designed to painlessly create hard-to-guess passwords when users sign up to websites. Whenever a site presents surfers with a field requiring a password, Chrome will display a key icon, giving users the option of allowing the browser to generate the secret for them. This password, provided a user accepts it and it meets the site's security criteria, is reused next time the site is accessed.

Google is positioning the technology as an interim workaround for the well-known shortcomings of asking humans to come up with memorable non-trivial passwords, until more websites support OpenID, which Google views as a long-term solution to the problem.*

The ad brokering giant neatly summarises the pitfalls of password use that makes its tool potentially useful:

Passwords are not a very good form of authentication. They are easy to use but they are trivial to steal, either through phishing, malware, or a malicious/incompetent site owner (Gawker, Sony, etc.) Furthermore, since people are so apt to reuse passwords losing one password leaks a substantial amount of your internet identity.

The interim solution, while easier for some than using existing browser-based tools (Password Manager and Browser Sync), is certainly not without its shortcomings, which Google is trying to resolve or minimise.

The technology works using auto-complete. So any site that omits support for auto-complete can't be protected. "Maybe we can get users to re-authenticate to the browser before logging into such sites," a post on Google's Chromium developer blog suggests.

Google plans to enable users to see and perhaps export or print saved passwords from a new web service. Access to this feature is likely to be protected by insisting that users switch on two-factor authentication schemes (perhaps requiring a code from an SMS sent to a registered mobile as well as a password) before allowing access to the technology.

Using Chrome to generate passwords might make Google an attractive target if the credentials are stored in the Chocolate Factory's cloud. Google downplays such concerns, arguing that there's already a bullseye painted on its back.

"Google is already a high-value target so this shouldn't change much," it notes. "Moreover it's easier for us to make logging into Google more secure via StrongAUTH than have every site on the internet secure itself. At some point in the future it might also be possible for us to automatically change all of a user's passwords when we realise that their account is hijacked."

A more detailed explanation of how the technology might work, featuring screenshots, can be found on Google's Chromium developer blog here. ®

Bootnote

* Mozilla is promoting its own browser-based alternative to usernames and passwords for website logins. Browser ID operates in much the same way as OpenID, which is already supported by many websites such as Twitter and Facebook. Both systems support decentralised authentication, allowing users to consolidate their digital identities, therefore minimising the need to maintain scores of passwords to log into websites.

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