Stupid Security Measures: autocomplete=off – How To Turn Off or Disable
While I’m all for some browser related security, this one feature is completely asinine because it’s so unpredictable, uncontrollable and stupidly implemented. This is the complete opposite anyone should expect from a quality user experience. Let’s explore.
What is auto-completion?
Most browsers today will automatically fill forms and password fields from locally saved browser login and password information (usually the field is yellow when automatically filled). This is called autofill or autocompletion. While I admit that storing passwords inside a browser is not the smartest of ideas, specifically if it happens to be connected to your bank account. With that said, it is my choice. Let me emphasize this again loudly. Saving passwords IS MY CHOICE! Sorry for yelling, but some people just don’t listen or get this… hello Chrome, Firefox and IE, you guys (especially Chrome) need to take notes here.
So what’s this autocomplete=off business?
As a result of autocompletion, the browser creators have decided to give web site creators the ability to disable this mechanism from within their own web pages. So, when they create forms, they can add the tag “autocomplete=off” to the form which prevents the browser from storing (or offering to store) passwords or other sensitive information. This is fine if the browser would give the user the choice still. It doesn’t.
I’m fine with browsers trying to prevent stupid behavior from users, but always provide an override. Never implement features like this, however, at the expense of a frustrating and inconsistent browser experience. This is exactly what autocomplete=off does. Why? The browser doesn’t give the user control over this web page mechanism nor does it even warn of it. If the site sets this flag on their form, the browser won’t offer to store anything dealing with this form. That’s fine IF I can disable this behavior in the browser. I can’t. As I so loudly said above, this is MY choice. Make this a preference. If I want to store logins and passwords for any site on the Internet, it’s my choice. This is not Chrome’s choice or Wells Fargo’s choice or any other site’s choice. If you offer to store and save passwords, you need to let me do it under all conditions or don’t offer to do it at all. Don’t selectively do it based on some random flag that’s set without any warning to the user.
Inconsistent Browser Experience
When autocomplete=off is set on a form, there is no warning to the user that this value is set. The browser just doesn’t save the password. You have no idea why, you don’t know what’s going on. You expect the browser to offer to save and it doesn’t. This just makes the browser look broken. And, frankly, it is. If the browser can’t warn that autocomplete=off is set by the site through changing the color of the bar, flashing, an icon or some other warning mechanism (like the lock when https is in use) the user experience has been compromised and the browser is broken. This affects not only Chrome, but IE, Safari and Firefox. Yes, and this is extremely bad browser behavior. It’s also taking a step back in time before web 2.0 when the browser experience became more positive than negative. We’re heading back into negative territory here.
Browser Developers Hear Me
Not warning the user that the experience is about to change substantially is not wanted behavior. For auto-completion, we already have mechanisms to shut it off entirely. We have mechanisms to exclude sites from saving credentials. Why do we need to change the browser experience just to satisfy Wells Fargo or some other site? I’m all for letting these sites set this flag, but just like overriding bad certificates at https sites, users should be able to override autocomplete=off. There is no need to break the browser experience because you want to allow sites stop saving of passwords. No, again, hear me, it’s MY CHOICE. It’s not your choice as a developer. It’s not Wells Fargo’s choice. It’s not PayPal’s choice. It’s MY CHOICE. If I want to save passwords into my browser, allow me t0 always override this setting.
Yes, there are browser hacks available as browser extensions (Chrome or Firefox) to disable autocomplete=off on forms on sites. While these hacks work, they require updating, can break on browser updates and can be generally problematic under some conditions. No, this is an issue that firmly needs to be addressed in the core browser, not through clever browser add-on hacks. Let the sites set autocomplete=off, that’s fine. But, warn me that it’s turned on and let me override it. I shouldn’t need a hack to fix a bug in the browser.
Always Warn of Browser Experience Changes
Why am I going down on this issue so hard? Because this is a completely crappy implementation of this feature. Why? Because it breaks the user’s browsing experience without any warning. If this the page is attempting to prevent me from saving credentials, then this information should be marked clearly in the browser somewhere. Perhaps by adding a special icon to the address bar indicating that credential saving is not allowed on this site. Then, when I click that small icon, I should be able to override this behavior immediately. Again, this is my choice to store or not store passwords to the browser. There should never be any defacto security mechanisms which cannot be overridden by a user control. Never!
If the user chooses to do something stupid, that’s the user’s choice. No, it’s not a bank’s, chrome’s or any other company’s responsibility to ensure the safety of user data. It’s entirely the user’s responsibility and those choices should be completely left up to the user to decide, for better or worse.
[Update] Safari is now warning when autocomplete=off is set on a page. Safari now tells you that the site you are visiting doesn’t allow saving of passwords. Bravo to at least Apple for getting this one right.
I have also found that Firefox with the Greasemonkey plugin and this Greasemonkey script works best for completely disabling all pieces of autocomplete=off. While the above plugins do at least allow saving passwords, the plugins don’t always allow autocomplete to work. This means that if you want to see your credentials autopopulate into the fields on page load, you may have to use Greasemonkey instead. I have found that the Greasemonkey solution is the most complete at disabling autocomplete=off. The reason this works is that Greasemonkey actually removes this autocomplete=off pieces from the page before Firefox renders it. The other plugins just tweak the browser to ignore the setting for password saving, but it still exists in the page source and, thus, the pieces that manage the autocomplete parts are left unhandled. So, these pieces still don’t populate the fields.