Learn Computers Series: Web Browser Extensions and Add-ons

Browser extensions and add-ons are great, but what are they and do you know which ones are installed in your browser?

Extensions and add-ons are very common with almost all modern browsers supporting them(and yes I am including mobile web browsers as well). They function as programs that run in your web browser or extend its features. This can include things from scanning web pages for malware, allow certain video types to be played in web pages as well as giving the application a new look. However, they all share a common function, that they run inside of your web browser of choice and execute code that wasn’t checked or vetted by the browser maker to be entirely safe (although it may be scanned for malware). This can cause security issues as they could have direct access to your web browsers data.

Where do I find add-ons/extensions?

Where you can find the extensions varies. To obtain add-ons, they can be bundled in downloaded software or directly from the web browsers online repository.  Both Firefox and Chrome have their own browser ‘store’ where you can search for and install them.

To locate this in Firefox, go to the menu (triple line square in the upper right hand corner as of June 18, 2015) and then click add-ons.  Here you can select each type to see what is installed as well as install, activate or remove items.

To find this in Chrome, you need to do the same, go to the menu and then settings, and then click Extensions. Here you will want to browse the Chrome web store for additional items, or manage what is currently installed.

Review Your Installed Extensions

Although you need to tell the web browser what to install and when you may have extensions that you do not want installed on your system. You should periodically check to see if anything has been added without your knowledge or consent.  Occasionally legitimate software will include its own extension to use in your web browser, but many times extensions can be bundled into software as part of monetary deals to earn the software developer some extra money. This isn’t inherently bad, but I have seen that it’s usually far to easy to install them when you don’t wish to when obtaining new software.

With this in mind, you should go through all installed extensions and uninstall or disable all items that you don’t recognize or no longer use. This will help you be protected from malicious extensions as well as more niche add-ons that may be old and have security flaws in them. This will also make you aware of any items that may have installed as part of other software that you didn’t give outright permission to install this as well. Without checking you open yourself up to a potentially large security issue as a malicious extension could steal passwords or funnel your data through an attackers network.

How do I keep safe with extensions?

Download only from your browsers online repository or from software vendors you know/trust. Do not use extensions that require special installation or work arounds to properly install as well as any that are hosted by individuals online. You should also uninstall/disable any extensions that you do not recognize as soon as you discover them. Be sure to check your extensions after installing new software to see if any new ones have been installed as part of the process. If you feel that a bad extensions was installed, search for it online to see what it does and if it is a known threat. If so, change all your passwords immediately to avoid having online accounts compromised.

Final Thoughts

Extensions can really enable a custom and more streamlined experience while browsing the web, but like all software come with inherent risk of the source is not trustworthy. Be sure to know what extensions you really need and what ones can be uninstalled and check to ensure no extra items are installed without your permission. The worst thing to happen if you remove to many is that your browser will prompt you to reinstall something it needs to function with when it’s needed. So customize your experience and web work flow but be sure to keep an eye on what you really use/need to keep your data safe.

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