The Dangers of Storing Passwords in Your Web Browser

· 9 min read
The Dangers of Storing Passwords in Your Web Browser

Storing passwords in your web browser seems like a convenient option but it comes with significant security risks. All major browsers including Google Chrome, Mozilla Firefox and Microsoft Edge offer built-in password managers that store login credentials to streamline signing into sites. However, these browser-based systems were not designed with security as the top priority.

Browser Passwords are Insecure by Design

Browser passwords are stored in a highly insecure manner that makes them vulnerable to theft. They fail to provide the necessary security protections that dedicated password managers offer.

The problem lies in how browser passwords are encrypted. While the passwords themselves are encrypted, the encryption key is stored on the device itself in a predictable location. Anyone with access to this key can easily decrypt all stored passwords. Worse still, malware can exploit this system to extract passwords without much effort. Entire types of malware called "password stealers" have emerged solely to pilfer credentials from browser stores.

Scarier still, no sophisticated hacking skills are even required. Python scripts freely available online can effortlessly extract passwords from the largest browsers like Chrome, Firefox and Edge with minimal technical know-how. This makes any computer with browser passwords accessible highly vulnerable even if left unattended briefly.

Physical Access to you device leaves you vulnerable

Having physical access to a target machine renders browser passwords completely compromised. Anyone who gains access to your logged-in computer can easily view all passwords stored in the browser. Usually, no user authentication is needed since in most cases, browser profiles remain permanently logged in after usage.

Intruders don't even need special technical skills - pre-written scripts make decrypting and exporting browser passwords extremely simple. An overly curious person, estranged family member or temporary guest could potentially steal all your accounts with nothing more than a quick browse through files on an unlocked device.

In a demonstration by Fractional CISO, a Python script took less than a minute to extract passwords stored across Chrome, Firefox and Edge on a Windows computer. This highlights how effortlessly insider threats or physical access could result in a full password database breach without hindrance. A privacy-invading roommate or untrustworthy repair shop employee represents as much risk as a skilled attacker in such scenarios.

Browser Hijacking Enables Remote Theft

Even without physical access, browser account hijacking opens the door to password theft. Major browsers allow syncing login data, bookmarks, extensions and other settings via cloud profiles tied to accounts like Google or Mozilla. However, these accounts become a single point of failure.

Once an online intruder bypasses browser account credentials, they gain remote access to all passwords stored therein regardless of physical location or device ownership. A single compromised browser ID and password offers thieves the keys to every important account linked via the same synced browser profile.

Targeted browser credential stuffing attacks focus heavily on hijacking accounts to trade valuable personal information. When hackers access your Google Chrome profile, they automatically get handed the passwords to all sites stored within - from social media to banking. No local system intrusion required. This risk severely compromises the supposed advantage of syncing passwords across devices through browser accounts.

Browsers Lack Security Features

Whereas dedicated password managers offer security as a core functionality, web browsers were designed primarily for general web surfing. Their password handling capabilities remain an afterthought addon without stringent safeguards in as much as most companies are trying to improve this.

Browser password stores lack advanced security controls found in specialist tools. For example, they support two-factor authentication for unlocking stored credentials. Without a unique per-user authentication barrier, any person logged into the same browser profile gains access to stored passwords.

Leaving a browser logged in presents the same threat as leaving sensitive information openly accessible without any logins. Many browser users also remain unaware password storage can even be configured with features like a profile lock in Firefox. Such options remain disabled by default, revealing how browser security defaults fail to properly protect unsavvy users.

Corporate Password Management Mayhem

For businesses, browsers introduce password chaos that risks data breaches. IT teams have zero visibility into which employees store what passwords where since browser managers operate independently of corporate devices and security policies.

When staff resign or are fired, IT lacks means to ensure all access is revoked if passwords were haphazardly tucked away in personal browser vaults without oversight. This opens the door for dismissed employees to wreak havoc from outside by abusing leftover access to important systems and data.

Such unregulated password hoarding also makes it impossible for security teams to assess password strengths and enforce best practices company-wide. According to a Verizon DBIR report, over 80% of breaches stem from weak, reused or stolen credentials - a preventable risk browsers exacerbate without management controls.

Even worse, people with administrator privileges are usually able to retrieve passwords across devices connected to the network and are joined to the Active directory. All they need is a simple python script that is available online and domain administrator privileges. This is really scary especially for people who use work computers to do their personal things , including banking. This is also what attackers abuse whenever they gain foothold in the environment and have elevated privileges.

Browsers Remain Big Targets for Hackers

While browsers aim to be helpful, their inherent flaws attract unwanted attention from cyber attackers. Given how easily they offer a ready-made credential store just waiting to plunder, professional hackers actively develop new tricks to crack browser passwords at an alarming rate.

As demonstrated in tutorials published to Medium, even less skilled coders can easily write Python scripts to siphon passwords from the two biggest browsers Firefox and Chrome. The Chrome tutorial took less than 20 lines of code to sniff out hundreds of stored logins, highlighting concerning gaps in browser defences.

Browsers also face constant patching due to discovered vulnerabilities left insecure by oversight instead of design. Edge, Chrome and Firefox survive only thanks to vigilant developers racing to slam doors before evildoers barge in. But securities ultimately prove temporary as long as inherent weaknesses remain unsolved at the infrastructure level.

With motivating monetization opportunities, expect browser attacks to evolve rapidly each season. Storing valuable passwords within them gifts adversaries justification to invest heavily in innovative hacking techniques that routinely outpace browser patching capabilities.

Residing amongst the most attacked software while offering some of the weakest safeguards renders browsers an enticingly weak link with consequences too great for casual password protection. They simply weren't intended for this critical role yet fulfil it by default due to usability priorities over safety.

Browser Password Managers Threaten Privacy

Beyond security, browser syncing introduces privacy hazards when personal login data flows into centralized cloud profiles. Google, Mozilla and Microsoft hold decryption keys that theoretically grant backend access to all passwords should they be compelled by law enforcement with appropriate warrants.

While reputable companies strive to respect privacy, concentrated personal data stockpiles represent attractive targets for governmental surveillance. Giving up control over sensitive credentials to third parties opens doors for profiling activities or data handovers that bypass user consent.

Furthermore, browser sync profiles tie real identities to accounts via associated phone numbers, names and addresses during registration. This risks exposed personal details whenever credentials get pilfered, amplifying privacy violations from linked password breaches.

Such centralized risks diminish when using a local password manager disconnected from cloud syncing. Tools like KeePass keep decryption and storage solely within a user's ownership, avoiding single points of surveillance or failure exposed by browser-synced profiles.

Limited to a Single Browser

Needless to say, the passwords you save in Chrome will only be available in Chrome, and Firefox passwords only work in Firefox. If you use multiple browsers on different devices, you'll have to save your passwords separately in each browser.

This reduces convenience and makes it harder to access your passwords when needed. With a standalone password manager, you can securely access your credentials from any device or browser.

No Password Sharing Options

Dedicated password managers allow you to securely share passwords with other people when needed - for example, with family, friends, or co-workers. Browser-based password managers have no such option. The only way to share a password stored in your browser is to message or email it to the other person (very insecure!) or tell them in person.

Dedicated Password Managers Offer Better Protection

Given the clear downsides of browser-based storage, experts agree dedicated password managers deliver far stronger security, privacy and control. Specialist tools like LastPass, 1Password and Kaspersky Password Manager incorporate lessons learned from browser hazards into vault designs hardened from the ground up for maximum protection.

  1. Zero Knowledge Encryption: Passwords get encrypted client-side before storage and decryption occurs exclusively on devices via a master password, removing the browser's "keys under the doormat" design flaw.
  2. Access Control: Enforced master passwords lock the vault, preventing access without authorization unlike vulnerable always-logged-in browsers. Two-factor authentication adds another protective layer.
  3. Device Independence: Passwords sync across platforms via encrypted backups rather than browser accounts, removing single points of failure or surveillance.
  4. Corporate Management: Enterprise managers like Bitwarden, Passbolt and others facilitate centralized visibility, control and policy enforcement to secure organizational credentials above personal browser caches.
  5. Password Generation: Built-in random secure password creation with auto-save and fill supports stronger, unique credentials to replace weak, reused browser staples.
  6. Password Monitoring: Dashboards gauge password strength and flag reused/compromised credentials to improve security awareness impossible for laissez-faire browsers.
  7. Lockout protection - For most password managers, after a few failed master password attempts, your account gets locked down to prevent password guessing attacks.

Experts overwhelmingly suggest dedicated password managers harden protection significantly above browsers by design for worried personal and business users alike. Their extra steps safeguard this most sensitive of digital assets too valuable to casually store in less capable software. So despite the initial hesitation some feel about "putting all your eggs in one basket", the basket that is a password manager is extremely secure - more than enough for most users' threat models.

Migrating Your Passwords to a Password Manager

If you currently use your browser's built-in password manager, don't panic! You can easily export those passwords and import them into a dedicated password manager app in a few quick steps:

  1. Install and set up your new password manager app. Some popular options are, 1Password, Bitwarden and Dashlane
  2. In your browser settings, find the option to export or show passwords, and save the list somewhere like your desktop as a CSV file.
  3. In your password manager, find the import or add passwords from file/browser option.
  4. Select the CSV file you exported, verify the passwords were imported correctly, and delete the CSV file which contains unencrypted passwords.

The password manager may find some duplicate or weak passwords during import that you can clean up. Make sure to also turn off the browser's built-in password manager so no more passwords are saved there.

Within minutes, you can migrate your passwords over to a much more robust and secure password manager that adds considerable protection against password theft. You don't have to import your old passwords either - you can simply change them to newly generated strong passwords next time you log into each website.

1Password – Best Password Manager for Everyone

1Password makes it easy to generate, store, and autofill passwords for all your online accounts, on all your devices. Because weak and reused passwords are a leading cause of security incidents, using a password manager is an easy way to protect yourself, your family, or your business.

1Password is also much more than a password manager. It can safely store your sensitive documents, banking information, medical records, SSH keys (for developers), and many other secrets. It’s easy to share those items and collaborate securely, too. Plus, membership comes with a ton of perks, like Masked Email integration from Fastmail, signing in with other providers like Apple and Google, and actionable security recommendations from Watchtower.

Bitwarden - Open Source, Easy to use, modern, cross-platform and convenient

Bitwarden is another great choice. You can import your previous passwords from other password managers with ease. Free for personal use. Available for Desktop, all Browsers, Android, and iOS.

Bitwarden offers three password manager plans: a free basic version, which will be in enough in most cases, a premium version for $10 per year, and a family version for $40 per year. The free edition allows you to sync all of your devices with Bitwarden and generate secure passwords, but it is limited to one user.

Strong Passwords Are Not Enough - You Need Password Hygiene

Having long, unique, complex passwords is important for security. But equally important is your "password hygiene" - your habits and practices around how passwords are used and managed. Storing passwords in your browser indicates poor password hygiene. You should also avoid other bad practices like

  • Re-using the same password across multiple sites
  • Using simple or easily guessable passwords
  • Writing down passwords in insecure places
  • Not changing passwords for long periods
  • Saving passwords in documents or on the desktop
  • Texting or emailing
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