What's in the latest Chrome update? Whole lot of security, privacy shakin' goin' on

After skipping version 82 because of the pandemic, Google this week released Chrome 83, which offers users DNS-over-HTTPS and – eventually – tab grouping.

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Chrome 81

Google last week released the postponed-by-three-weeks Chrome 81, patching 32 vulnerabilities - plus one more on April 15 - and pledging to roll out a tab grouping feature to all users before the next upgrade lands in mid-May.

The California search firm paid at least $25,500 in bug bounties to researchers who reported some of the vulnerabilities. Three were tagged as "High," the second-most serious in Google's four-step threat ranking, and one - patched with build 81.0.4044.113 on Wednesday - was pegged "Critical," the rare top-most rating. The latter, as well as two of the High trio, were submitted by engineers at Qihoo 360, a Chinese security software developer.

Chrome updates in the background, so most users can finish the refresh by relaunching the browser. To manually update, select "About Google Chrome" from the Help menu under the vertical ellipsis at the upper right; the resulting tab shows that the browser has been updated or displays the download process before presenting a "Relaunch" button. Those who are new to Chrome can download version 81 for Windows, macOS and Linux here._

Google updates Chrome every six to eight weeks. It last upgraded the browser on Feb. 4.

Note: Google suspended Chrome releases in mid-March because of the COVID-19 pandemic and related disruptions, notably orders from companies, including Google, that sent home many employees to work remotely. Chrome 81 was originally slated to launch March 16 but was postponed three weeks. That pause, said Google, necessitated skipping version 82 and resuming upgrade numbering with Chrome 83, now set to release on May 19.

Tabs now form groups

The most prominent addition to Chrome 81, Tab Groups, is likely still invisible to most users. It was to Computerworld staffers running the browser.

Tab Groups, which has been under construction for months, essentially does what it says: Users organize tabs in the bar atop the browser by lumping together several, each lump designated by color and name, adding new tabs and removing existing ones.

The feature was to debut in February's Chrome 80, and may have in a small number of instances worldwide. It wasn't on Computerworld's numerous copies running under Windows 10 and macOS. Now, Google said, Tab Groups will roll out in Chrome 81, although it may not be immediately available by default.

"This will be rolled out widely to Mac, Windows, and Linux users throughout Chrome 81," Google said in these release notes, under the section title of "Introduction of tab groups for remaining users."

The impatient can manually engage Tab Groups by entering chrome://flags in the address bar, searching for Tab Groups, changing the setting at the right to Enabled, and relaunching the browser.

Tab Groups is easy to use: Right-clicking tabs now offers menu items to assign tabs to new or existing groups, or remove tabs from those groups. Other actions let users name each group and/or select a color, which boxes the name and borders the tabs of that group; ungroup the tabs; or close all tabs in the group.

chrome 81 Google

After enabling Tab Groups in the chrome://flags options pane, the Chrome user can create groups, as shown here by the red-tinted News group on the left and the Gaming group in green on the right.

Chrome 81's tab functionality will be most useful to those who regularly wrangle a large number of tabs each session. Segregating tabs into collections brings some organization to what otherwise would likely be a randomized mess. Tab Groups' simplicity is its best characteristic, since it's more likely the feature will be adopted into browser workflow.

But it's hardly a compelling reason to stick with Chrome or take it up, as some have argued. It lacks at least one crucial tool - a way to save groups, either singly or collectively, for later recall - and can be mimicked, even surpassed, by add-ons, such as Simple Tab Groups for Mozilla's Firefox. (Firefox had a tab grouping feature at one point - known as Panorama - but Mozilla scrubbed it from the browser in 2016 because it was used by so few.)

Browser rollbacks are now a thing

Many bits of Chrome 81 that are notable are not because they're there but because they aren't. If that's confusing, join the club.

Google had planned for several things to happen in Chrome 81, in particular protocols that were to be dropped or skills it was to surrender or security moves it was supposed to take. A number of them, though, were canceled, at least for this version, presumably to reappear in a future upgrade.

FTP's back! Although Google said months ago that it would remove support for FTP (File Transfer Protocol) - an early Internet system for file transfer - in Chrome 81, and apparently did, it soon restored support. In an April 9 message on the Chromium bug tracker, a Google engineer wrote, "In light of the current crisis, we are going to 'undeprecate' FTP on the Chrome stable channel, i.e. FTP will start working again." FTP will be put on the chopping block "once people are in a better position to deal with potential outages and migrations."

TLS 1.0 and 1.1 not departing this mortal coil yet. As Computerworld noted previously, browser makers, Google included, issued reprieves for TLS (Transport Layer Security) 1.0 and 1.1, encryption protocols that were to be dropped in March.

Support for TLS 1.0 and TLS 1.1 will now be removed from Chrome 84, the upgrade scheduled to launch July 14.

SameSite enforcement put off. With Chrome 80, the version Google began distributing in early February, the browser was to begin enforcing SameSite, the standard pushed by Google, Microsoft and Mozilla designed to give web developers a way to control which cookies can be sent by a browser and under what conditions. Cookies distributed from a third-party source - not by the site the user was at, in other words - had to be correctly set and accessed only over secure connections.

The SameSite enforcement was to roll out slowly, as most Chrome changes do, beginning around mid-February when small numbers of users would see their browsers take action. Enforcement was to expand to more Chrome users over time.

Now, that has all been reversed.

In an April 3 post to the Chromium blog (three days before Chrome 81 released), Justin Schuh, the director of Chrome engineering, said that "in light of the extraordinary global circumstances due to COVID-19, we are temporarily rolling back the enforcement of SameSite cookie labeling, starting today."

Schuh said Google didn't want to chance destabilizing "essential services" rendered through the websites of banks, grocery stores, government agencies and healthcare organizations. Google will resume enforcement down the road, perhaps over the summer, Schuh added.

Chrome's next upgrade, to version 83 - remember, Chrome 82 won't exist - is scheduled to debut on May 19.

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