The war against autocomplete=off: let my browser remember passwords !

I noticed a while ago that many security professionals advise their customers to use ‘autocomplete=off’ in the password fields of login screens. It also started to scratch an itch on me when my password manager never stored passwords for a few websites. And I started to look for opinions before forging my own.

Websites advising to disable autocomplete

A few blogs, forum posts and even stackoverflow advise to disable autocomplete on password fields. itself advises to prevent web browsers from caching sensitive data in the client side.

What are the advantages of disabling autocomplete

The two main advantages for the security are the following:

  • Avoid caching sensitive data on client site (CC numbers)
  • Avoid storing the password in an insecure and hackable client-site database

The first bullet is in my opinion completely legitimate. Some information, like credit card numbers, should not be remembered in the web forms, because there is nothing that can let the browser understand that this field is sensitive, that its content should not be stored unencrypted on the hard drive and shown in plaintext at the first occasion when the user types a few digits in a text box (and be victim of shoulder eavesdropping). However passwords are different. They have their own class of input box and browsers know how to manage them. I will come to this later.

The second advantage of that policy is that passwords won’t be remembered in the case the user’s computer has been hacked. That’s true in a few occasions, like when the user has malware on his computer or his laptop gets lost/stolen. I would respond that no software password management solution can really help when the end user computer cannot be trusted. In many case, malware can just wait for the user to type his password to steal it. To efficiently protect against malware, users should be provided a physical device to be used to authenticate and sign any sensitive operation. That’s the only working mitigation in my opinion, we use these in Belgium for e-banking and it’s working pretty well. Continue reading “The war against autocomplete=off: let my browser remember passwords !”