Your Backspace Key Shouldn't Be a Self-Destruct Button

There's an obvious reason your computer doesn't have a "self-destruct" button on the keyboard, but there are still some users who would probably like to have one. People who frequently dispose of laptops that contain sensitive information (IT managers, hackers, the Impossible Missions Force) would love a function key that immediately wipes the hard drive. However, billions of regular users would find a feature like that dangerous, because there's a decent chance that they would press the key by accident and lose their work.

Unfortunately, most desktop web browsers contain the software equivalent of a self-destruct button, and it's the backspace key. When you're actively typing into a text field, hitting backspace will erase the letter to your left like it does in any word processor, but if the box is out of focus, the very same button will send the browser back a page, causing you to lose your work. When you're composing an article, writing a social media post or replying to an email, the data loss is instant and devastating.

This problem occurs because Firefox, Internet Explorer, Edge browser and, up until the latest version, Chrome treat the backspace key as a convenient keyboard shortcut for the back button. Google wisely removed the "backspace as back button" feature in Chrome 52, which first rolled out a few weeks ago, but Mozilla and Microsoft — which account for roughly 30 percent of the market — continue to put their users at risk. By default, no browser should send you back a page when you hit backspace.

MORE: Make Backspace Go Back in Chrome

Believe it or not, there are actually some power users who are upset that Google removed the backspace shortcut from Chrome. BGR's Zach Epstein called the feature change "infuriating", while the company's own bugs board lit up with complaints. To assuage these angry users, the search giant came out with its own official Chrome extension that lets power users turn the dangerous keyboard shortcut back on.

Google was right to turn off the backspace shortcut by default, and the company has statistics that validate the decision. According to Google, only 0.04 percent of page views are navigated via the back button, but 0.005 percent occur after a form interaction. That 0.005 percent of interactions are times when people likely lost their work. With hundreds of millions of Chrome users viewing billions of pages, even that tiny percentage accounts for a lot of real-world heartache.

Firefox provides a way to turn off the backspace shortcut, if you're willing to dig into the browser's somewhat-daunting configuration screen. However, most people don't change software defaults and won't even realize there's a problem until it's too late and they've lost some work.

MORE: How to Disable Backspace as Back Button in Firefox

I have no idea how the backspace key became a standard keyboard shortcut in most browsers, but it was a bad idea from day one and it's an even worse one today. In 2016, most people live online and rely on web-based applications to do everything from shopping to communicating with clients to writing term papers. Google made the smart and long-overdue decision to get rid of its self-destruct key. Now it's time for Microsoft and Mozilla to change their defaults and recognize that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.

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Avram Piltch
Online Editorial Director
The official Geeks Geek, as his weekly column is titled, Avram Piltch has guided the editorial and production of since 2007. With his technical knowledge and passion for testing, Avram programmed several of LAPTOP's real-world benchmarks, including the LAPTOP Battery Test. He holds a master's degree in English from NYU.