How Safe are Browser Extensions?

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Browser extensions are one of those things some users feel they need. Others rarely – if ever – use them.

But one of the most misunderstood and least discussed properties of browser extensions is their safety. Are they really safe to use? Should we be cautious about using them? And how much is too much?

Browser extensions are simply a piece of software that adds a unique feature or performs a personalized function for us during our browsing experience. These can include a myriad of tasks from organizing notes to removing pop-up ads, managing passwords to changing the appearance of tabs.

How Do Browser Extensions Work?

Browser extensions add additional features or functionalities to a website. But they can also be tasked with removing unwanted options such as autoplay videos and other inconvenient features.

They are generally created by using known web-based technologies and languages such as HTML, CSS, and JavaScript. Some extensions come directly from the browsers like Google Chrome or Mozilla Firefox but the vast majority of extensions such as VPN’s and ad blockers are created by third-party programmers.

Most browser extensions have partial or full access to everything you do online. This means they can track your browsing, capture your passwords, and even insert customized ads based on your browsing history.

However, browser extensions don’t just get full access automatically—most of the time, we grant it to them knowingly or unknowingly. For example, if you ever pay attention while installing a browser extension in Chrome, you will see a message which will read something like: “Read and change all your data on the websites you visit.”

Most users tend to overlook such messages and install extensions anyway without understanding the implications.

Are Browser Extensions Safe?

The answer is both yes and no. It really depends on the type of extensions you are installing; the biggest security risk they pose is from permissions management.

The good news is that most modern web browsers have a permission system in place for extensions and some use very few permissions to perform their tasks. For instance, they may only execute when you click the extension itself or only run on specific websites.

The bad news is that most browser extensions have permission to run on every website and have full access to everything, which can eventually turn them into a security nightmare.

How Can Browser Extensions Risk Your Security?

Here are some privacy and security concerns that browser extensions can pose:

  • They can work as potential keyloggers to capture your passwords and login details. In fact, a keylogger can track everything you type, making it a huge threat to your sensitive data such as credit card details and financial information.
  • Malicious browser extensions can redirect your search traffic elsewhere.
  • A dangerous web extension could potentially download malware, adware, and Trojan horse viruses.
  • Some browser extensions can gather bits of information from your browsing history and pass it on to third parties or sell it to advertisers.
  • Most extensions can be updated automatically which means that even a legit extension could be hijacked and updated on your device without you ever finding out.

There is no guarantee that the safest browsers can protect your privacy when it comes to their browser extension offerings. In 2020, Google had to remove a total of 106 Chrome browser extensions from its Chrome Web Store in response to a report that they were being used to funnel sensitive user data.

Ways To Minimize the Risks of Browser Extensions

Now that we know the dangers of browser extensions, you need to know how to mitigate them.

Avoid Using Too Many Extensions

When it comes to browser extensions, less is always more so keep your list of extensions to a bare minimum.

Most web browsers come with customizable features and do not need additional extensions that were once popular, such as managing to-do lists or saving news articles for reading later.

Since most good extensions eventually become a part of the browser itself, there is no need to add additional ones boasting the same features and expose yourself to the dangers of malicious extensions.

Install Extensions From Trusted Sources Only

It is extremely important to only install extensions coming from popular sources such as the Chrome Web Store or Mozilla.

Avoid installing quick and seemingly easy extensions as there is no way to predict what type of data exploitation they might be conducting. Also, an extension created by a random stranger to customize popular services like Gmail or YouTube is a red flag and should be avoided as they can open doors for malware.

However, if an extension is coming directly from a reputable source like Google or Microsoft then it’s worth a shot: these are generally safe and not sold to third-party companies for malicious purposes.

To keep users safe, Google uses machine learning to detect and block malicious extensions whereas Mozilla conducts automated validation checks on its extensions. But again, always err on the side of caution, even with the popular browser providers.

Get Rid of Unused Extensions

If an extension has been sitting idle in your browser, then simply uninstall it.

Go through all of your browser extensions regularly and delete the ones that are no longer needed. This reduces the risk of security flaws that can be introduced through extensions especially the ones offered by third-party providers.

By deleting unnecessary extensions, you also help your browser work better—routine cleaning of your browser is a great performance booster for your system.

Deleting browser extensions varies by browser.

For instance, in Chrome, you can click on the extension icon in the upper right corner of the window and then select Remove. Alternatively, you can click the More button (the dotted vertical line on the top right) and select More Tools. Then click on Extensions to see a list of all your installed extensions and remove the ones that are not needed.

Take Advantage of Browser Extensions With Due Diligence

It is no wonder that browser extensions play an important role in our browsing worlds.

While not every browser extension is dangerous, it is up to us to be diligent and determine the legitimacy of an extension before installing it. A good way to achieve that is by researching the extension’s publisher and their history beforehand.

Always remember to use the browser extensions sparingly and stay alert regarding the ones that you have already installed.

Be Safe – Backup Your Data Regularly!


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