Hackers Buy Popular Chrome Extensions, Inject Malware
By Jennifer LeClaire / Data Storage Today. Updated January 20, 2014.
User experience with the new Chrome isn't quite stellar. Reports are emerging from extension developers that reveal changes in Google Chrome extension ownership can inadvertently make users the target of pushy ads or even malware.
Google has removed at least two of the offensive apps, Add to Feedly and Tweet This Page. Once benign utilities, bad actors acquired the apps with plans to leverage them for nefarious purposes. Amit Agerwal regrets selling Add to Feedly in a blog post entitled, "I sold a Chrome Extension but it was a bad decision."
"The extension was sold, they sent the money via PayPal and I transferred the ownership of the extension to a particular Google Account. It was a smooth transition," he wrote. "A month later, the new owners of the Feedly extension pushed an update to the Chrome store. No, the update didn't bring any new features to the table nor contained any bug fixes. Instead, they incorporated advertising into the extension."
Invasion of Invisible Ads
Google Chrome's Developer Program Policies do allow for ads, but not the kind with which users are getting smacked. According to the guidelines, "Ads are considered part of your product for purposes of content review and compliance with developer terms....Ads which are inconsistent with the app's content rating are also in violation of our developer terms. Please take care to use advertising that does not violate Chrome Web Store Developer Terms. This ads policy does not apply to extensions."
But, as Agerwal points out, Add to Feedly's new owners didn't push out regular banner ads that you see on Web pages. Rather, they serve up invisible ads that work in the background and change links on every Web page that you visit into affiliate links. In other words, if the extension is activated in Chrome it will inject adware into all Web pages.
"No surprises, the ratings of the extension have recently plummeted at the Chrome store but the business model of the buyer is simple -- they buy popular add-ons, inject affiliate links and the bulk of users would never notice this since the Chrome browser automatically updates add-ons in the background," he said. "And there are no changelogs either."
Does Chrome 32 Help?
Last week, Google rolled out Chrome 32, which introduced improvements to help make browsing quieter, safer and sleeker. For example, the malware warning in the Safe Browsing feature is now stronger.
Does Chrome 32 with its stronger security messaging help with the extension issue? We asked Jeff Davis, vice president of engineering of on-demand Web information security solutions provider Quarri Technologies, for his take on the drama. He told us Chrome 32 is a good step and improves the security of the Web as a whole. It won't, though, prevent the extension malware from invading your browser.
"Most savvy Web users learned years ago to avoid saving and running executables from untrusted sources, especially when their browser warns that the file could be malicious," he said. So this will help some of the less-savvy Web users avoid falling victim to some relatively unsophisticated attacks. However, it's just another piece in a big puzzle, and we're still missing a lot of the pieces. The most sensitive browser-delivered data still require significant extra protection beyond what's provided by the browser vendors."