Now and then, we have to install a browser extension to make our internet experience seamless. It might be to get a VPN Access, block ads, or stop automatic video playing. However, considering the nature of these extensions, a serious question we need to ask is how safe are browser extensions?
A web browser extension can access sensitive data and alter browser settings. These abilities make them excellent tools for malicious activities.
In this article, we shall discuss the security risks of downloading and installing browser extensions and ways to mitigate these risks.
Let’s get started with what a browser extension is.
What is a Browser Extension?
The first browser extensions debuted in 1999 on the Internet Explorer web browser. This extension, called Explorer Bar, allows users to add a toolbar to the browser’s interface.
Subsequently, other web browsers like Firefox, Opera, and Google Chrome also started supporting the use of browser extensions. Thus, they became more powerful and more integral to our browsing experience as the years went by.
These days you get browser extensions from official stores like the Google Chrome Web Store, App Store, and Firefox’s Add-ons portal. You can also get them from third-party developers.
What can you do with Browser Extensions?
There are tons of things you can do with a browser extension. We can say the same thing about web browser extensions as we do for mobile apps: “there’s an app for that.” There is almost no limit to what you can do with them.
For simplicity, we shall group what we use a web browser extension for into five buckets. They are as follows.
1. To Customize Your Web Browser
With browser extensions, you can manipulate web pages to suit your tastes. You can change the browser themes and appearance, modify toolbars, and even add a language translator.
2. To Enhance or Complement a Website
Some websites create extensions to deliver additional browser features for their website’s proper functioning. These extensions allow users to collect information and enhance their experience of the service offered by these websites. An example of this is the Amazon Assistant for Firefox.
3. To Add or Remove Content From Web Pages
You can use extensions to upgrade a web page’s HTML and CSS code. Ad Blocking extensions are primary examples of this; they block intrusive ads and stop the autoplay of videos.
Certain extensions can also reformat a webpage for a better reading experience.
4. To Add New Features or Development Tools
Features like a taskboard generating QR codes from URLs, hyperlinks, or page text are not inherent in a web browser. Extensions like Tomato clock can make a web browser capable of doing that.
Web browsers have developer tools to help web admins and designers to manage their websites. However, certain extensions expand these capabilities.
5. To play games
Some browser extensions are games that a user plays when they are offline. Some take this up a notch by integrating games into everyday browsing.
What Are The Security Risks That Comes With Downloading Extensions
The nature of browser extensions gives them partial or full access to everything you do online. Interestingly, you might be unable to achieve what you intend to do with the browser extension without this trait. This characteristic has enormous implications for users of these ‘mini-apps’.
Browser extensions can be likened to mini-apps, and thus everything they do will be based on the permission you granted to them. These permissions give them full or partial access to your data. So if you ask, are web browser extensions safe to use? The answer is yes and no.
Extensions are safe to use because you have to permit them before they can work. However, they pose serious security risks because of the kinds of permissions you will have to grant them and what they do with that permission beyond your knowledge.
So what security risks come with downloading and using extensions on your web browsers?
Browser extensions can serve as tools for malicious actors to funnel sensitive data such as your browsing history. This data is often sold to advertisers or by their third-party developers.
They can also work as potential keyloggers to track your text input, that is, everything you type. Sensitive data such as credit card details and financial information, login details, and passwords can be captured as a result.
A malicious browser extension could download malware, adware, and Trojan horse viruses onto your device without your knowledge. They can also redirect your search traffic elsewhere. Google reported in 2015 that five percent of visits to its websites were altered by extensions with adware.
Lack of Full User Control
When you install extensions on your web browser, you get a prompt that tells you to “allow them to read and change all your data on the websites you visit”. Some web browsers allow the extension to do this by default.
Browser extensions can be prime targets of hijackers. Since they are updated automatically, they can manipulate the extensions to become malicious without you ever finding out. So, in the real sense, you might not have full control over the workings of the extension as you think.
Extensions from Third-party developers amplify this risk. They can sell their source code at any time, and buyers may have malicious intent. Particle, a popular Chrome extension, is a good example of this. The developers sold it, and the buyers converted it to adware.
How Can You Mitigate the Risk of Browser Extension Detection?
You don’t want to abandon extensions completely. Though some may be dangerous, there are still useful ones. You only need to know how to use them safely.
Avoid Installing Too Many Extensions
Too many extensions expose you to a lot of security risks. It is better to reduce the number of extensions you use to the barest minimum. Using fewer extensions is not only a security tactic. It is also a performance tip.
Too many extensions make the web browser use a lot of system resources. When you use a few extensions, it will boost your computer performance as the browser would require fewer system resources to run.
Install Extensions From Trusted Sources
Verify the sources of the extensions that you use. Try as much as possible to install only extensions from official web stores. The extensions from those sources are vetted and always under strict compliance with the rules and regulations of the stores.
Uninstall Unnecessary and Unused Extensions
Keep your list of browser extensions to the most important ones alone. Do regular checks on the extensions that you use and uninstall the ones that you need again. Doing these helps you stay safe from extension hijacks and security flaws that arise especially from third-party developers.
Scrutinize Permission Requests From Extensions
Pay attention to the permissions that extensions request. If you notice any irregularity, it is better to get rid of such extensions. Sometimes, an extension you have installed may ask for new permissions. Try to verify these requests before you accept them.
Before you install any browser extension, check the permission requests and try to match it with its functionality. If it doesn’t correlate, it is better not to install such an extension.
VPN Browser Extensions
VPN Browser Extensions are kinds of browser extensions that offer VPN access for internet users. They are like portable VPN plugs that can be attached to browsers instead of the whole software unit for the same function. Sometimes, these extensions are add-ons for the software unit itself.
These extensions are supposed to protect just your browsing activity and not the other apps on your device as the software unit would do. This allows you to make use of the full speed of your internet connection for downloads and whatever you want it for. It also helps you to avoid problems that may arise when your apps are forced to use a VPN connection.
However, the problem with using a VPN browser extension is that they are not what they are called. They are simply proxies. Proxies and VPNs are similar because they both mask your IP address and make it appear you are from another location.
However, a VPN differs from a proxy server because it creates an encryption tunnel that makes your data encrypted while it switches between internet servers. (For more information about proxies, check out this article: residential proxy vs datacenter proxies)
Most VPN browser extensions fail to keep their promise of encrypted internet connection, and therefore they are not safe to use. They offer VPN proxy services and not VPN connection as you desire when you install them.
If you use VPN, you probably want to keep your online activities private and clear from hackers or those snooping around on public networks. Instead of using VPN browser extensions, Incogniton can be a much better option.
Incogniton is an anti-detect browser and much safer than VPN browser extensions. You will be able to enact whatever level of anonymity you may require in your internet usage.
With Incogniton, you can replace multiple computers with virtual browser profiles and still be assured that your data is safe and private. Each user profile gets a unique browser fingerprint and this enables them to go beyond internet tracking techniques like canvas fingerprinting.
You will enjoy all these features while still being able to do your normal internet browsing. Incogniton is a user-friendly web browser and it is compatible with both Mac and Windows operating systems.
Browser extensions play important roles in making browsing experiences seamless. However, they also possess the potential to be used as tools for malicious intent like tracking your browsing history, capturing your passwords, and inserting customized ads based on your browsing history.
All these things make browser extensions a huge security threat to your online privacy.
The best way to get the best of browser extensions is to use them sparingly. Do your research to determine an extension’s legitimacy and the kinds of permissions required before you install it. Also, be alert with the ones you have already installed.
In a nutshell, be careful with the use of browser extensions.
Can Websites Detect Extensions?
Ideally, websites are not supposed to detect the presence of extensions in your web browsers. However, certain parts of an extension code make them detectable by websites with browser fingerprinting systems. When these codes are not part of a browser extension source code, they might not be detectable by a website.
Are Chrome Extensions Safe?
Yes and No. It all depends on the source, that’s the developers of the extension. Extensions made by Google, the developer of Chrome, and other big-name tech companies can be trusted to adhere to the strict rules of privacy. However, the case with unknown third-party developers can be tricky. You have to research them and be sure to an acceptable level that you can trust them.
Can Chrome Extensions Have Viruses?
Yes. Hijacked extensions can be corrupted and turned into malware or viruses. In 2020, Avast reported that more than three million users had installed malicious browser extensions on their devices. They identified about twenty-eight of these kinds of malicious extensions and advised that users uninstall or disable these extensions.
Can Chrome Extensions Be Dangerous?
Chrome extensions obtained from questionable sources will be dangerous. Avoid downloading extensions from shady sources or untrusted over-the-air sites. Always download your extensions, if you have to use them, from official stores like the Chrome Web Store.