These SEO Chrome extensions have access to your (browser) data

Today my fellow SEO, Sander Tamaëla pointed out on Twitter that the popular Chrome extension Webpage Screenshot (4 million downloads according to their website) is sending all kinds of data to their servers, like the visited pages, session IDs, social connections etcetera:

This made me curious, since I was aware of the possibilities of tracking people’s behaviour by browsers add-ons like toolbars and extensions but I never heard anyone about a popular Chrome extensions. I’m not that paranoia and mostly aware of what I’m doing online, but I wanted to know how Google Chrome is dealing with plugin acception and how it communicates about these permissions given once you install an extension.

I ended up with this PDF document of the NSA (who else would you trust on this subject!) about Deploying and Securing Google
Chrome in a Windows Enterprise
which explains all the possibilites in detail. To sum it up, Google divides the extensions into three main categories:

Read that first line again: extensions categorized as High Risk, have access to all data on your computer and all the websites you visit. Google has included some explanation in their support section as well: Permissions requested by apps and extensions. Extensions categorized as “Medium Risk” have the following access: “This item can read every page that you visit — your bank, your web email, your Facebook page, and so on. Often, this kind of item needs to see all pages so that it can perform a limited task such as looking for RSS feeds that you might want to subscribe to.”

The NSA shares an example of an extension categorized as high risk, developed by Google:

As you can see, once you select an extensions before installing, it shows the permission level you will comply to once you install the plugin. The NSA document is dated October 2012, and currently, this is not shown at all in the extensions screen before installing:

So so think the extension is looking good, got positive reviews, there are no elements on that screen that could change your mind about installing a new extensions. You click on the “Free” button and you get the following confirmation screen:

But you already read all the information on the screen that suits that purpose best, all your mates are using the plugin and installing this was recommended by all the well known SEO ninja’s on the planet. Most people won’t read, let alone think, about the fact you are giving the extensions access to all your browsing data. I’m not going into detail about what you can do when you have access to this data, but most important for most people is their privacy, next to your clients privacy when working as a search engine optimizer. I’m always using incognito mode, without any extensions active, to do most of my personal browsing (banking, social media, shopping) but for most SEO related work I use the standard mode so I can use all my extensions without to much hassle.

Update 06-08: I decided to dig a bit more into the working of extensions. Every extension requires a manifest.json file, to be working. In that JSON file, the required permissions are listed. These files can be found in the folder with all extensions. In Windows these extensions can be found in the following folder: C:\Documents and Settings\*UserName*\Local Settings\Application Data\Google\Chrome\User Data\Default\Extensions or C:\Users\*UserName*\AppData\Local\Google\Chrome\User Data\Default\Extensions An example from the Ayima Redirect Path extension:

"manifest_version": 2,
"minimum_chrome_version": "17",
"name": "Redirect Path",
"permissions": [ "tabs", "webRequest", "\u003Call_urls\u003E", "cookies" ],
"update_url": "https://clients2.google.com/service/update2/crx",
"version": "0.7.2"

So the required permissions are clearly visible. Google listed all the permissions possible with an extensive explanation about the working of each API that is used once granted access.

Which SEO extensions share your data?

To see which plugins have access to all my browsing activities I checked the most commonly used SEO extensions. For a detailed view, download the PDF so you can see the access required per extensions or hover the green, orange and red icons.

Company / DeveloperExtensionUsersAlert
EvernoteExtensieEvernote Web Clipper3.391.053
GetpocketSave to Pocket1.682.831
Glenn WilsonUser-Agent Switcher for Chrome578.029
editthiscookie.comEditThisCookie442.200
GoogleExtensionPageSpeed Insights (by Google)400.690
AlexaAlexa Traffic Rank338.961
Chromefans.orgPageRank Status314.665
Rapportive.comRapportive308.332
Bitly.comBitly285.036
seoquake.comSEOquake191.707
marketingabuse.comSEO for Chrome155.399
MozMozbar137.282
benblack86Linkclump99.750
WooRankSEO & Website Analysis87.885
builtwith.comBuiltWith Technology Profiler80.979
cartercole.comSEO Site Tools73.844
Omiod.comSEO SERP Workbench66.376
Paul LivingstoneCheck My Links65.668
webrankstats.comWebRank SEO55.459
mnmldave.github.ioScraper53.305
Omiod.comMETA SEO inspector40.957
esolutions.seLive HTTP Headers39.784
MajesticMajestic SEO Backlink Analyzer33.101
Redflymarketing.comSEO Global For Google Search™24.970
 igorware.comNoFollow21.767
AyimaRedirect Path20.807
Vincent ParéCopy All Urls17.376Extremely
quickwin.co.ilGoogle Analytics URL Builder11.515
samdutton.comPage speed test8.877
Sellhack.comSellhack8.155
www.eisbahn.jp/yoichiroSemantic Inspector7.589
reliablesoft.netReliablesoft – SEO Tips6.592
pagenoareLink grabber4.204
wordtracker.comWordtracker Scout3.616
monitorbacklinks.comMonitor Backlinks3.447
dejanseo.com.auSERP Preview Tool3.079
Tomas BalciunasSiteCatalyst Debugger2.717
Fat JoeFat Rank2.573
BuzzstreamBuzzStream Buzzmarker2.222
AKM3Seerobots1.899
j832.comCanonical1.885
SiteTrailSiteTrail1.806
bulkseotools.comBulk SEO Tools1.050
seoprofiler.comSP Backlink Manager559

I can imagine some tools need access to some browser sources, but I would like extension publisher to be more clear about what they are using and why they need specific access per extension. Next time read the TOS and make sure you know what you are installing in your browser 🙂

4 Comments

  1. Nice, but some of those restrictions (or lack thereof) are needed for the functionality of course, it still depends what they do with it…

    Reply
    • Yes, but you can also choose to ask access to just use the currently opened tab, or website instead of all the URLs. Only one plugin, the Builtwith.com extension is doing that, they require: “Access your data on builtwith.com” so they can’t access your the other websites you visit. Why would a plugin like Mozbar or Majestic need access to all your tabs since they just have to return data for specific websites once you ask for it.

      Reply
  2. In 2011 I knew that it existed but just until 2012 at the time of the cookie law I dived further into this just like fingerprint tracking and the so-called “free” mobile apps.
    With “free” you have to ask yourself:
    – “what wants the tool/app/plugin from me, and do i except this for which I want to use it?”

    Thanks for the overview and well written explanation.

    Reply
  3. Before few years ago was very easy to steal user’s data. Just need to wrote on extension and put on user computer. Once extension is there he inject everywhere you visit even on SSL sites and can grab your data without permissions.

    I make similar extension for Safari showing do-follow and no-follow links on page by injecting CSS to all of pages: http://www.mobiliodevelopment.com/dofollowurl-safari-plug-in/
    I’m a good guy and didn’t change anything except styles for links.

    But issue persist and once you install some plugin he can do anything with your data – stealing usernames/passwords, hide specific sites, redirect sites and so on. That’s why Chrome make change in latest versions and you can install extensions only from their store online. You can’t load them anymore from disk. Just because malware creators use this loophole. I expect other browsers to start similar technique against plugins soon.

    Reply

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