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A security weakness in the update mechanism for third-party add-ons to the Firefox browser could give an attacker the ability to exploit unsecured downloads and install malicious code on the victim's computer, a security researcher warned on Wednesday.

The vulnerability affects any third-party add-ons that use an unsecured download site as part of the update process, according to Indiana University graduate student Christopher Soghoian, who released an advisory on the issue Wednesday.

While using the standard secure communications protocol available in major browsers, known as secure sockets layer (SSL) encryption, could prevent the attacks, many major companies - such as Google, Yahoo!, Facebook, LinkedIn, and AOL - failed to do so, Soghoian said.

"Many companies have world-class in-house security teams, so their worst sin is not consulting their own experts, who would have undoubtedly shot down any attempt to update code over an insecure and untrustworthy connection," Soghoian said in an email interview with SecurityFocus.

Soghoian, who attracted the attention of the US Department of Homeland Security last year when he created an online boarding-pass generator, posted an advisory and video of the attack to his website on Wednesday, a month and a half after notifying Mozilla and Google of the issue.

Vulnerability researchers have increasingly targeted Firefox as the open-source browser's popularity has grown. The group improved the browser's security with its latest version, Firefox 2.0, released last October. Both Microsoft and Mozilla have argued that their own browser protects internet users better.

In April, Soghoian decided to use a network sniffer to capture the data that Firefox sent out over the network as it was starting up. He quickly noticed that several extensions sent requests to check for new updates using plain Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP) packets, without any sort of security.

"The insecure update requests stuck out like a sore thumb, and within a couple of hours, I had a working demo which proved that it was possible to hijack the extension upgrade process," Soghoian said.

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