A Beginner’s Guide to Browser Extensions
What is a browser extension?
Today’s Internet use involves far more than simply “surfing the web.” Today, we watch videos, catch up on the news, check our financial information, and communicate with people on the other side of the world — a nearly-endless list of tasks. And for most of them, we use our Internet browsers.
Modern browsers like Brave process our requests for information and return the results in the form of web pages, applications, and more. We use browser extensions for Brave to add personalized functionality. You can choose which extensions to add; over time, you can assemble a suite of extensions geared towards streamlining your work process - or just generally improving how the Internet looks in your browser.
Brave is the Internet browser reimagined. Gone is the standard surveillance economy of most browsers, which relies on trackers and other creepy internet devices to gather and trade user data. Brave reverses the surveillance economy and rewards users for retaining their privacy, not for trading it away. Brave shifts the whole paradigm by putting you in full control of your user data. But how do browser extensions fit in?
Browser extensions are like specialized agents working with the flow of information through your browser. They may work to organize your notes, protect you from malicious actors, or just transform how that information appears. Of course, browser extensions by nature have access to all of the myriad things we do online, from shopping to checking our bank account. A poorly-secured browser or a malicious extension can expose personal information to unscrupulous eyes, risking identity theft or fraud.
Brave gives the user tight control over what information they give away by eliminating trackers and other creepy Internet tricks by default. Brave doesn’t eliminate browser extensions - it just makes sure they’re safe.
In this article, we’ll discuss the basics of browser extensions; what they are, how they work, and what they do.
Browser extensions - the basics
Web browsers process a nearly-endless flow of information; uploads from your computer, downloads from the Internet, cookies and trackers on individual sites. Even loading a simple web page requires an exchange of information. Browsers are the software applications that allow users to access all of that information on the web.
How do browsers work with browser extensions?
Browser extensions modify the basic flow of information through your browser. They are typically small software modules which are installed to customize some aspect of the browser’s appearance or function. A few of these software packages originate from the makers of the browser itself, but far more often they are third-party offerings. There is a huge variety of browser extensions available, depending on the function they serve and the problems they solve.
What are the possible uses for browser extensions
An extension can be quite simple or quite complex depending on what their use or functionality is. Many extensions bolt-on a new option to existing features; there are extensions that offer encryption for email, for instance. Others, like ad blockers and password storage extensions, aim to streamline the entire Internet browsing experience.
How to add or remove browser extensions
It’s relatively straightforward to add extensions to the most popular browsers like Brave. They allow users to easily manage them from within your browser’s settings. You can see what’s currently installed, disable or remove specific extensions, and search for new ones to add. Of course, you can also search for extensions for your browser through your preferred search engines or in many instances download them directly from the creators website.
Different browsers and different extensions
Firefox and Safari use fundamentally different source codes from Chrome and Brave. This means that an extension that works for Firefox will require a separate version to work for Brave or Chrome. The situation gets a bit more complicated when you realize that some browsers don’t support any extensions at all.
Increasingly, browsers are becoming more reliant on the Chromium source code, sharing an underlying language. The Chromium code is the open-source base for a number of popular browsers, notably the Brave browser and Google Chrome. Browsers that share source code can also share extensions.
Brave browser extensions
Brave works with all Chrome extensions thanks to the shared Chromium code. Brave also audits extensions: try to install an unverified extension, and you’ll receive a warning message letting you know that Brave hasn’t been able to properly vet the extension. Many of the most popular browser extensions out there will be easy to integrate with Brave.
See this resource on how to add extensions to Brave.
Why is the extension audit so important? It’s one of the ways Brave enables a privacy-based Internet economy. The final decision to install any browser extension is up to you, but Brave gives you the information you need to protect yourself. We’ll discuss more about the benefits of Brave’s extensions audit a bit further along.
Beyond the privacy concerns, third-party extensions can pose a significant security risk. Extensions can be fancy malware intentionally. Often, like the numerous MetaMask fakes, malicious extensions imitate legitimate ones: at times, Google has removed legitimate extensions accidentally, leaving fake ones behind.
Making things more complicated, a legitimate extension can pass an audit, make it on to the web store, and then be sold to a different publisher who changes the code and introduces malware. These risks make Brave’s extension audits crucial.
Finding new extensions for Brave
Brave makes finding and adding new extensions easy. Since Brave, like Google Chrome, is Chromium-based, the main source for new extensions for both browsers is the Chrome web store.
The search function makes it easy to find new extensions or track down the extension someone recommended to you.
As an example, perhaps you came across an article or review praising an interface upgrade for Wikipedia. Searching “Wikipedia” in the Brave or Chrome store displays the popular extension Wikiwand, which modernizes the older Wikipedia interface, and from there the extension can be installed easily.
Browser extensions security and privacy
One of the issues that comes up frequently with browser extensions is the question of security. Just how safe is it to use one or more browser extensions? Does it matter who makes the extension? Cyber-security and online privacy are critical topics, and there are a number of issues you should be aware of when using a browser extension.
Any add-on to your browser carries a bit of additional risk. An extension is simply another bit of software, and if that software carries a weakness or is actually malicious, then you could open yourself up to some problems. Since we bank online, conduct business online, make purchases online, and keep up a social life online, our browsers have access to virtually all of our personal information. A malicious or flawed extension opens the door for that information.
How browser extensions may affect privacy
Web browsers will potentially see everything you do on the Internet. They see your bank account password, your social media info, your financial statements - everything you do online. When you install an extension, it could potentially see that same information. This makes browser extensions far more powerful and more dangerous than you might think.
In essence, every extension you install carries the potential to give someone access to your personal information. Even the most innocuous extension - like the Wikiwand extension mentioned above - requires complete access to your browser and is a potential security risk. How do you maintain your internet privacy and still use extensions?
The first step requires finding a secure browser. By blocking trackers and most ads while you browse, Brave protects your information. Once you’ve switched to a secure browser, the second step is to control what extensions you add to that browser. Know where those extensions are coming from, and limit the total number of extensions you install.
Checklist on how to stay safe with extensions
Here are some specific steps you can take to use browser extensions safely; but first, a general word of caution. A key to staying secure is being aware. Know what you have installed, but even more broadly know the risks that come with putting your data online. Take basic safety precautions, from protecting passwords to avoiding scams. Switch to a browser like Brave which puts your privacy first and audits eligible extensions. Then follow the specific steps below to use extensions wisely and safely.
- Check the source
As mentioned above, the Brave browser makes this process a bit easier by auditing extensions. If you try to add an extension not reviewed by Brave, you’ll get the following message:
“Brave has not reviewed this extension for security and safety. Only install this extension if you trust the developer.”
- Know what you have
Manage your extensions well by checking to see what you have installed and active. There are at least two reasons for this: one, to keep what you like and get rid of what you don’t, and two, to always have at least a general idea of what you have in case there’s a warning about a risky extension or a possible data leak. It happens with some regularity, and you’ll want to know if you’re one of the ones affected.
- Don’t overload your browser
Every extension you install brings two negative side-effects: it adds a security risk and it adds a performance burden to your browser. If you’ve got 15 extensions installed and running at all times, and your browser seems a bit slow - there’s probably a connection. Not to mention that every one of them is a potential data breach. So how to manage the risks posed by browser extensions vs the rewards? Well . . .
- Delete unused extensions
Delete anything you’re not using regularly. Downloaded a cool extension, played with it once or twice, then never looked at it again? Delete it. If it’s not in daily or weekly use, it’s probably not worth keeping on your browser.
You might also find when you look at your list of installed extensions that there’s more there than you thought. If you’re not sure how an extension got installed or where it came from, delete it for sure!
Browser extensions tips and tricks
With the basics covered, here’s a couple of extra things to be aware of.
Mobile browser extensions
What about mobile? Can you add extensions to your Android or iPhone? Maybe. Android-based mobile browsers offer three approaches to extensions: some browsers come with no extensions, others are only compatible with native extensions from the browser’s publisher, and others offer third-party extensions as well.
The Chrome web browser supports thousands of extensions, but the mobile version of Chrome supports none. Other mobile browsers like Opera offer only native extensions, built-in from the publisher, and only managed by the user.
It’s also worth mentioning that some mobile browsers essentially act as beefed-up extensions on their own; they specialize in performing one particular feature. DuckDuckGo (enhanced privacy) and Flynx (reading and page-loading) are good examples here.
Chrome web store
Recently, there’s been a certain amount of unification in the browser-extension world. Chrome’s extensions can all be found at the Chrome Web Store, which makes it handy to search for new and useful extensions. But those same extensions can be used for any browser that relies on Chromium, the open-source language that underpins the Chrome browser.
Brave browser will work with any Chrome browser extension since they share the Chromium code. There are other places to find extensions, including downloading them directly from the publisher’s website, but if you’re running a Chromium-based browser the web store is your first port of call.
In a world of endless customization, browser extensions fill a necessary gap. They are a key part of the exchange of data that supports the current framework of the Internet. When you surf the Web, you let websites collect information on what you view, what you like, and what you buy. In return, those websites deliver personalized ads and offers that they hope you’ll be interested in.
The Brave browser displays a fundamental shift in how users, publishers, and advertisers interact on the web. Brave automatically blocks the vast majority of the quiet data exchange, using Shields to block trackers and other creepy things.
Shields help protect your privacy as you browse by making it harder to track from site to site. To find out more check out our article on How to Use Shields while Browsing.
Extensions, which are often a back door to your data, are audited to make sure they won’t expose your data. In short, the Brave browser puts you in charge of your data. You can still view ads, but you’ll do so while fully in control of your own information.
As far as extensions go, Brave will work with most Chromium-based extensions from the Chrome web store. But be careful, and mitigate the security risks from browser extensions by only installing extensions you know from publishers you trust, and delete any extensions you don’t use regularly. It’s also a good idea to keep your eye on the tech and cyber-security news, so you can be aware of data breaches early and take extra steps to protect yourself.
To get the most out of your extensions, you need a browser that has the most to give. The Brave browser fits the bill perfectly, prioritizing a streamlined and safe browsing experience but still giving you access to all the extensions the Chrome web store has to offer.
You can download Brave here and use those extensions wisely!