A couple weeks ago I enjoyed reading The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution by Walter Isaacson. It’s a worthwhile read. One of the many things that stood out to me is how far internet browsers have come from the limited early 90’s Nexus and Mosaic browsers to the browsers we all enjoy today. Modern browsers are so powerful that they are making countless users “operating system agnostic”: whether on a PC, Mac, Linux machine or chromebook – open a browser and many people are good to go for work and leisure. As is always the case, with this wonderful increased functionality comes new vulnerabilities to your computer’s resources and personal data. Let’s talk about extensions…
What is a browser extension?
Modern web browsers’ functionality can be extended through small applications that are added to the browser program by the user. Usually, these applets are called extensions (Chrome, Firefox, Opera, Safari, Edge) or Add-Ons (Internet Explorer). Some extensions can provide measurable benefit to the user: for Google GSuite users, adding the GSuite extensions to Chrome will enable additional functionality like offline-mode to Google’s online office suite. Tens of thousands of users have found the extension Grammarly to both help them in their writing whilst sparing them the embarrassment of grammatical faux pas in their emails. So while some are indisputably useful, many users may be unwitting running extensions that are working against them.
What’s the Danger?
Extensions give the creator various kinds of access to your system, browsing habits and even personal data. The browser extension web stores will try to vet and actively shut down outright malicious extensions. Whereas many clients are unable to install new programs on their machines apart from an admin login, browser extensions work differently allowing the user to get around that protective measure. When a user reports to us that their system “isn’t quite working right,” we’ll often find a number of (inadvertently installed) browser extensions that are doing who knows what in the background: maybe redirecting search results, or taking over one’s home page, displaying extra ads, generating pop-ups, or maybe hogging system resources for things like mining cryptocurrency for the extension creator with your computer.
Before adding an extension to your browser, be sure you can answer yes to all the following questions:
- Do I know exactly what this extension does and what kind of data it will have access to? (Be very distrustful of sites that offer a one-click option to add an extension now that you didn’t know you needed. Please, no.)
- Do I know why I’m adding this extension or what known value will it give me?
- Do I trust the maker of the extension? (Google is your friend, but if it was unexpectedly suggested to you by a site, be leery.)
The Power of Sync
Have you noticed that most modern browsers allow you to log into the browser? This lets you keep things like your browsing history, stored passwords, and auto-fill information consistent with whatever device you happen to be on. This also means if you install an extension on one device, it will often, by design, sync to all your other devices. So the hurt of one careless click can follow you around your digital life, but, thankfully, so can the cleanup.
We’ll conclude the post with directions specific to each browser for cleaning up the extensions on Chrome, Opera, Firefox, Safari, Edge and Internet Explorer. Once you follow the screenshots to navigate to the extension manager, you can disable–or better, remove–everything listed that you didn’t intentionally add or actually use. For most users, that will mean removing all extensions shown. Enjoy your new cleaned up browsing experience!
- Click the 3-dot settings icon in the top right corner
- Select “More Tools”
- Select “Extensions”
- Select the “Remove” button (toggle switch disables)
- Click “View” on the menu bar
- Select “Show Extensions”
- Disable button to disable or the “X” in the top right of the card to remove
- Click “Tools” on the menu bar
- Select “Add-ons”
- Select “Extensions” on the left sidebar
- Disable or Remove
- Click “Safari” on the menu bar
- Select “Preferences”
- Select the “Extensions” icon in the resulting pop-up window
- Check the individual extension box on the left side-panel
- Click the settings gear icon in the top right corner of the browser (just below the close window “X”)
- Select “Manage add-ons”
- Use the “Enable/Disable” button to toggle (or you can right-click the extension to get the same option)
(Everyone but Edge can be shown in 2 screenshots, surprised?)
- Click the three horizontal dot settings icon in the top right corner of the browser (just below the close window “X”)
- Select “Extensions”
- Check the toggle switch to disable/enable
- Use the vanishing gear icon to the right of the extension card to uninstall