Google deals with fallout over Chrome auto sign-in

Google deals with fallout over Chrome auto sign-in

Upcoming Chrome 70 will allow users to disable a controversial automatic sign-in that links log-ins of its services with the browser

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Google will try to tamp down blowback from linking log-ins of its services with Chrome by adding an option to disable the automatic sign-in, the company said Wednesday.

The change will debut in Chrome 70, now slated to ship the week of 14-20 October.

"While we think sign-in consistency will help many of our users, we're adding a control that allows users to turn off linking web-based sign-in with browser-based sign-in," Zach Koch, a Chrome senior product manager, wrote in a 26 September post to a company blog.

Koch cited user feedback as the trigger for the upcoming change to Chrome. "We deeply appreciate all of the passionate users who have engaged with us on this," he said.

Passionate may have been an understatement of the reaction to alterations Google made to Chrome 69, the build released 4 September.

For example, Matthew Green, a professor at Johns Hopkins University and a well-known cryptographer and privacy expert, titled his latest blog post, "Why I'm done with Chrome" to show his displeasure with version 69.

"Due to Chrome's new user-unfriendly forced login policy ... I won't be using it going forward," Green wrote.

His objection and that of others was because, as of Chrome 69, signing into any Google service automatically also signed the user into Chrome.

Logging into one's Gmail account, for example, would also log the user into his or her Google account when Chrome opened. (That was the case whether a user had accessed Gmail using Chrome or another browser, like Firefox or Safari.) There was no overt notification that the user was auto-signed into Chrome.

The primary reason to log into Chrome is so that data on that device - bookmarks, passwords and the like - can be shared with Chrome on other devices used by the same person. Chrome calls that Sync, short for synchronisation, a long-held feature and one that all browsers boast.

Some users don't want any of their data, such as browsing history, sent to Google's servers, even if that lets them share their data between multiple devices.

To them - and others - signing in here and having Chrome automatically log in there was unacceptable, in large part because they believed that once signed into Chrome, data escaped their control and headed toward Mountain View's servers.

Green's opposition rested on other reasons. "For 10 years I've been asked a single question by the Chrome browser: 'Do you want to log in with your Google account?' And for 10 years I've said no thanks," Green said. "Chrome still asks me that question - it's just that now it doesn't honour my decision."

To Green, it didn't matter that Sync wasn't enabled, that he had never switched it on. "If you didn't respect my lack of consent on the biggest user-facing privacy option in Chrome (and didn't even notify me that you had stopped respecting it!) why should I trust any other consent option you give me?" he asked.

Google's Koch said the change was prompted by feedback from people who shared a personal computer with others.

"Over the years, we've received feedback from users on shared devices that they were confused about Chrome's sign-in state," Koch said. "We think these UI (user interface) changes help prevent users from inadvertently performing searches or navigating to websites that could be saved to a different user's synced account."

Koch also pointed out that the sign-in change did not turn on Sync; that feature remained opt-in and had to be enabled by the Chrome user via the Settings screen.

(To see the status of Sync, select "Settings" from the menu at the far upper right -- the one identified as three vertically-arranged dots -- and look at the top of the page. If Sync is on, it can be disabled by clicking the "Turn off" button.)

Because of the reaction to the sign-in switcheroo, Chrome 70 will offer a setting that disables the link between Google services and Chrome.

"For users that disable this feature, signing into a Google website will not sign them into Chrome," Koch promised. The presentation of sync status will also be modified so it will be easier to tell "whether or not you're syncing data to your Google Account," Koch added.

It was unclear whether that new setting would be engaged by default - in other words, if the sign-in linkage would not be automatically active - or if the tie-in would remain in place until the option is selected.

On Twitter, Wednesday - after Koch's announcement - Green acknowledged the future change but wasn't convinced enough to renege on his pledge to give up Chrome.

"A big shout out to the Chrome team for listening and doing damage control," Green tweeted. "I realize that this is about as good as it's going to get, so I promise not to complain much about it anymore. I am, however, going to use this as my impetus to start separating from Google."

Green said he has switched from Chrome to Firefox.

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