Browser Extensions: Force for Good or Evil?

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The modern web browser is close to 30 years old. It was designed to show text and images, and deliver the same experience for all users of all computers. That uniformity of design purpose lasted about a year. Soon, other web browsers were developed and introduced. Before long, data professionals starting envisioning the web browser as something that could do a lot more than just display mundane words and the occasional picture.

Extensions for browsers are little pieces of code that integrate into the main browser application. They can do pretty much anything, and that means they can be good or evil, or something in-between. They may save your passwords for you. When you look up a book at Amazon, they can check local libraries for available copies. When you search for an item, they can show you price comparisons. They can also hijack your searches, and steal your entered information.

And there are tens of thousands of them. While the major browsers (Edge, Chrome, Firefox, Safari) all have dedicated web sites with recommended extensions, many of these are sponsored links. Some solve problems you didn’t know you had. Others are so complex to use as to be useless. How do you know what’s safe, and productive?

A good rule of thumb is that if a website or pop-up touts a browser extension, you should avoid it. A major category here is on-line coupon finder. These extensions track your searches and purchases, and then scour the Web to find discounts. Of course, the coupons found may or may not have expired, and along the way your buying habits are being harvested for marketing.

Another perennial bad actor is the add-on search extension. These gizmos hijack your normal Google, Bing or DuckDuckGo requests, theoretically enhancing your search results with personalized, tailored results. In reality, they just re-route your requests through a search engine they control, and make a few micro-cents each time, and pass off the queries to Google anyway.

Lots of extensions are productivity aids. If you enter the same information frequently on web forms, get an extension that will store and let you enter common phrases with a right-click. Too many tabs open? Get an extension that will alphabetize them. There are extensions that give a privacy grade to the website you’re looking at. Several hundred can show the current weather in the URL bar.

Privacy extensions and their cousins the ad-blockers are probably the most often-installed browser extension. Using these, you can limit the tracking cookies websites keep on you, and block many of the ads shown on web pages. Note that web developers are constantly moving the goal posts – they are always coming up with new ways to thwart the blockers. 

It’s a good idea to review what extensions you may have installed, and delete ones you don’t recognize. Each browser has a different path to see the list, but look for a setting for “Add-ons” or “Tools, Extensions.” If you don’t recognize an extension, disable or delete it.

Browser extensions are like many things in life, best used in moderation. While almost all of them are free, it pays to be a little paranoid before blindly installing them. 

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