Are Your Favorite Browser Extensions Safe to Use?

KEY TAKEAWAYS

Browser extensions are software applications that add new features to web browsers. But are they safe? The short answer is: It depends.

What is a Browser Extension?

Browser extensions, or plug-ins, are lightweight software applications that add new features and functionalities to web browsers.

Popular web browsers like Google Chrome, Firefox, and Microsoft Edge all offer access to extensions, including AdBlock, Google Translate, LastPass, and Grammarly.

Security and Privacy Risks with Browser Extensions

Yet, while millions of users download extensions to add new capabilities to their web browsers, these components have expanded the attack surface, providing hackers with a new entry point into a user’s environment.

In fact, many of the most widely used extensions have vulnerabilities that put them at risk of compromise.

For instance, one researcher discovered that most popular Chrome browser extensions use chrome.webRequest API, which is regarded as a “critical” risk that can be exploited to intercept data or login credentials and access local files.

Likewise, last year McAfee analysts highlighted five popular Chrome extensions that had been downloaded over 1.4 million times, which were stealing users’ browsing activity.

Advertisements

So are browser extensions safe?

The answer could be both yes and no.

So, What’s the Danger?

Even though browser extensions often contain helpful tools, users need to be aware of the risks surrounding them if they want to protect their data.

One of the most common issues is that threat actors will develop browser extensions that carry malware and attempt to trick users into downloading the software to infect their devices by placing them on online marketplaces or malvertising. These extensions can also be installed if the user’s device is already infected with malware.

However, perhaps the biggest risk presented by browser extensions is the fact that many are built with software components and vulnerabilities that are easily exploitable.

For example, Spin.AI assessed 300,000 browser extensions and found that each had the ability to capture sensitive data from apps, run malicious JavaScript, and send protected data such as login credentials and banking details to third parties.

The prevalence of these vulnerabilities means that more and more threat actors are looking to target web browsers to gain access to a user’s personal data.

If a hacker manages to exploit these components, they can take harmful actions, including:

Unique Risks for Enterprises

Insecure browser extensions also introduce some serious risks for enterprises that have a lack of visibility over what extensions exist in their environments.

With more and more organizations operating hybrid or remote working environments with Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) policies, it’s difficult to identify what extensions employees are using and, thus, what exploitable components are part of the attack surface.

To make things more complicated, enterprises are also at the mercy of user’s individual cybersecurity practices. That means if a user downloads lots of extensions with vulnerable components, fails to update them, or downloads content from illegal websites, they can start a malware infection that impacts an entire organization.

The best defense enterprises have against these threats is to educate employees on how to select reliable extensions and steps they can take to enjoy a more secure browsing experience.

How to Safely Use Browser Extensions

Fortunately, there are a number of ways to reduce the risks you’re exposed to when downloading browser extensions.

The first is to make sure that you only download browser extensions from approved websites and marketplaces like the Chrome Web Store.

Many providers will offer reviews, so if these are available, it is a good idea to check them out to get an idea of their quality. You can also check out the developer’s website to see who produced the component.

You’ll also want to make sure you understand what level of permissions it has, as this will determine how much of your data it is able to access.

Another best practice is to make sure that you’re regularly updating your computer with the latest available security patches. This will reduce your overall exposure to vulnerabilities.

Lastly, using an antivirus can help you scan your web browser extensions for malware so that you can identify if your device has been compromised and respond ASAP.

As a general rule of thumb, if you’re not using an extension, it’s best to delete it to reduce potential entry points to your device.

The Bottom Line

While browser extensions present certain risks, many of these can be avoided simply by practicing due diligence and being selective about which you download.

Making sure you only use tools developed by trusted providers and opting to delete extensions that are non-essential can go a long way toward protecting your data.

Advertisements

Related Reading

Related Terms

Advertisements
Tim Keary

Tim Keary is a freelance technology writer and reporter covering AI, cybersecurity, and enterprise technology. Before joining Techopedia full-time in 2023, his work appeared on VentureBeat, Forbes Advisor, and other notable technology platforms, where he covered the latest trends and innovations in technology. He holds a Master’s degree in History from the University of Kent, where he learned of the value of breaking complex topics down into simple concepts. Outside of writing and conducting interviews, Tim produces music and trains in Mixed Martial Arts (MMA).