Software plugins can be risky and unsafe when it comes to the cybersecurity and privacy of devices. For this reason, users of devices like laptops and smartphones need to understand what plugins do and how exactly they can compromise a user and their device.
What Are Plugins?
The term “plugins” is very much self-explanatory as to what these software implementations are designed for. Plugins are additions to existing software such as applications, programs, and even web browsers. They “plug” into an already built piece of software as a supplementary product. Plugins can be created by anyone, even you and I. Once created, plugins can be shared on software communities online, on web stores, on app stores, you name it. The plugin market is huge.
Moreover, a plugin can be created for a PC game (think of the indispensable GTA IV plugins) or can be used for the customization of design in computer applications. These software additions can be made for just about any software imaginable as long as the source code of that software supports it. Usually, plugins are most commonly available in the form of things like web browser extensions. This is because the web is constantly being developed and updated, so plugins are very much needed in this case.
Plugins are extremely versatile and can be coded for any program or service out there. For instance, you may want a plugin for your YouTube viewing. Another example is plugins that you can download for major editing suites like Photoshop.
Other than that, plugins sometimes operate on the system level. To put this into perspective, your computer’s operating system would be quite useless without plugins from Quicktime or Flash Player. You would also find it difficult to read a PDF without the Adobe Acrobat Reader plugin or print something properly without a plugin for your printer. These are official, manufacturer plugins.
Apart from giving users the ability to customize and support applications and programs, plugins are critical for web development and web design. More important than that, plugins allow you to access media online in the case of Java. Sometimes, if your PC or other device lacks a Java plugin, things won’t work. Furthermore, online creators use plugins all the time for multimedia purposes. They also help web developers in a major way, and software developers too.
Let’s think about WordPress, for example. This is the most popular CMS (Content Management System) there is on the internet. An estimated 500 million websites are built with WordPress, making it the most popular CMS out there. Now, you may be shocked to find out that there are an estimated 60,000 plugins available for WordPress. Some of them help pages rank better, while others aid in building internal linking, site-building, and creating contact forms, for example.
What About Third-Party Plugins?
There are probably hundreds of thousands of plugins available across all the major app stores and web browsers. The plugin community is enormous, and new plugins are being developed each day to support a new purpose. As far as third-party plugins go, therein lies the risk. Now, a plugin can be an official plugin by a manufacturer, a trusted plugin by a developer or brand, or a random plugin that has not been verified (or one that has been compromised).
Now, most people will blindly trust something that has been posted on an app store or quickly need that “MP3 Converter” plugin installed on their computer. The problem is, that some people do not do the research and end up downloading malware, a virus, or simply a broken plugin that has not been coded securely or updated recently. After all, what could a little plugin do, right? Wrong.
How to Steer Clear of Risky Third-Party Plugins
For one, it is important to practice common sense and be suspicious of everything you download. No longer do we live in a safe, one-dimensional internet space. Hackers regularly hack and scam victims via things like third-party plugins (not to mention third-party applications). What you need to do is to first research what you need. Then, research what you will be downloading to verify that it is not malware. You could peruse some forums or simply launch an online search for “is [plugin] safe” or “is [plugin] legitimate.” By doing this you may find that what you are trying to download is a virus of some sort, or that the community does not recommend downloading it. There are several websites created for the sole purpose of informing whether a particular piece of software is safe.
Secondly, you need software-level protection. This means using a Virtual Private Network (VPN) that will cloak your connection. You also need an anti-malware or antivirus program that can scan your ports and what you are browsing in real-time. Furthermore, many experts recommend that you look into a premium WAF (Web Application Firewall) firewall software. This should block a malicious plugin’s attempts at communicating with hackers through various ports.
On top of that, you should activate your operating system’s default security controls like Windows Defender. Remember, any real-time scanning software should be able to detect, flag, and block malicious third-party activity on your computer. Also keep in mind that what you download is your choice, and sometimes sophisticated malware can slip through the cracks. This way, you would compromise both your security and privacy, perhaps even your financial account information or personally identifiable information about you, your friends, or your family. At the end of the day, stick to tried and tested cybersecurity measures and common sense when downloading and using third-party plugins and software.