If you could set aside about three minutes today to make your online life more secure, would you do it? That’s about how long it takes to learn why your browser extensions could create privacy problems for you and get a sense of how to fix it. Depending on how many browsers you use and extensions you have, it might take longer than that to evaluate and remove any potential bad actors. Typically speaking, though, three minutes is plenty of time to learn how to clean up your browser extensions and understand why you should do it.
What are browser extensions? They’re apps that run on your web browser and extend the functionality of the browser or some program you use in your browser, like Gmail. Extensions can also be called add-ons.
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Why Check Your Extensions and Addons?
Think of all the things you do online that involve personal information. Beyond the obvious answers, such as shopping online or logging into your bank account, you might access a tax document from a cloud storage service or discuss private deals. An extension with the right permissions can snag all of it.
In July, reports broke that several browser extensions had collected exactly this type of data from around 4 million people, and then leaked them. The offenders—Hover Zoom, SpeakIt!, SuperZoom, naponewsonline.org Helper, FairShare Unlock, PanelMeasurement, Branded Surveys, and Panel Community Surveys—affected Chrome and Firefox users. All the extensions have since been shut down, though if you ever used one of them, you should still remove it ASAP.
This isn’t the first time extensions were embroiled in scandal. In 2016, the German media site NDR exposed an extension that promotes itself as making the internet safer, while quietly collecting and selling data about people’s personal information and their online activities. That one, WoT or Web of Trust, is still operational.
How to Evaluate and Manage Extensions
Not all extensions obfuscate their true business models. Many add value, too. Some extensions improve Gmail, for example, while others help increase your privacy by blocking advertisers from following you around online. How can you tell the difference between useful extensions and ones just trying to take your data?
Mozilla offers some tips for assessing the safety of extensions. A lot of these tips come down to assessing the developer’s reputation. Is the extension’s developer a person or an organization you know? When you look up more information about the developer, including websites and social media accounts, is what you find consistent with the stated purpose of the extension?
To that end, it’s important to make sure you know where to find the name of the developer. Usually, you have to open the full marketplace page for the extension (for example, Chrome Web Store) and look directly under the title. Keep in mind that the name of the extension might refer to other products, such as Gmail, to make it seem familiar and trustworthy. That doesn’t necessarily mean it has any affiliation, however.
With all this information in mind, you can now quickly look through any extensions you have and revoke their privileges if you feel unsure about what data they can access.
How to Manage Extensions in Google Chrome
For Google Chrome, start at the Extensions page. You can get there in a few ways. Click the three stacked dots in the upper right corner of the toolbar > More Tools > Extensions. Or, in the menu bar, go to Window > Extensions. Or, right-click on any extension icon in your toolbar and choose Manage Extensions.
The Extension page shows a list of all extensions you’ve installed for Chrome and whether they are enabled or disabled. You can toggle each one on or off, read more details about what each extension does, and remove extensions if you no longer want them. When you click to remove, you have an option to report the extension to Google if you wish.
To get new extensions for Chrome, go to the extensions area of the Chrome Web Store. PCMag has a list of 100 best free Chrome extensions if you want to explore what kinds of extensions are worth installing.
How to Manage Add-Ons in Mozilla Firefox
To reach the page for managing add-ons, go to the settings and select Add-Ons or press shift+command+A. Here, you can review all the add-ons you’ve installed and disable, remove, or report them. In addition, you can read more information about them, what they do, and what permissions they have.
When you see a trophy icon next to an add-on, it means Mozilla recommends the extension, which is a good indicator that it’s safe.
How to Manage Extensions in Apple Safari
Managing extensions for Apple Safari for desktop is confusing, because you don’t manage them in Safari. You manage them in the macOS preferences. Likewise, getting new extensions is confusing because you do so from the App Store, not a browser marketplace.
In any event, open your macOS preferences, or go to the Safari menu and select Safari > Preferences > Extensions. Here you can disable, uninstall, and read more information about each extension.
To get new extensions, go to the menu and choose Safari > Safari Extensions. This opens the Apple App Store page for extensions.
How to Manage Extensions in Microsoft Edge
To review all your extensions in Microsoft Edge, select the settings (three dots in the upper right side of the toolbar) and choose Extensions. Your extensions appear right in the same area of the screen with a toggle next to each one to enable or disable it. Additional suggested extensions appear below those.
You can browse for even more extensions in the Microsoft Store. PCMag has a list of some suggested extensions for Microsoft Edge, too.
More Secure in Minutes
Checking your browser add-ons is a great way to make yourself a little more secure online in a matter of minutes. If you have more time than that, another excellent way to improve your security is by using one of the best password managers. Setting up a password manager doesn’t take a huge amount of time, but you do need to spend a few minutes per day sticking with it for several weeks until all your passwords are updated and stored securely.
Another place to focus your efforts is to run a security checkup on your Google account.
It’s hard to set aside time to do the things we know we should do. No one is asking you to be perfect right this second, but giving up a few minutes to keep on top of your online safety is time well spent.