Feeds

Google pulls Chrome extensions after new owners subvert web tools

This could get a lot worse before it gets better

Remote control for virtualized desktops

Google has pulled at least two Chrome extensions from its online store after spammers and malware merchants bought established software from developers and updated it to suit their own nefarious purposes.

The whistle was blown by developer Amit Agarwal, who spent a lazy hour or so coding a Chrome extension for the popular RSS reader Feedly; his handiwork soon garnered over 30,000 users. In a blog post, Agarwal recounted how he received "a four-figure" offer for the rights to the code, and considering that a good return for such little work, he accepted the offer and signed over the rights.

"A month later, the new owners of the Feedly extension pushed an update to the Chrome store," he wrote. "No, the update didn't bring any new features to the table nor contained any bug fixes. Instead, they incorporated advertising into the extension," he explained.

"These aren't regular banner ads that you see on web pages, these are invisible ads that work the background and replace links on every website that you visit into affiliate links. In simple English, if the extension is activated in Chrome, it will inject adware into all web pages."

Agarwal said that while there is an opt-out function on the extension, it's not set as the default and he advised users to switch to other options.

Another extension, Tweet This Page, is also on hiatus after following a similar route, and the development team behind yet another popular extension, Honey, has said that it was offered substantial sums to subvert their code.

In a Reddit conversation, the Honey team said it had received one offer worth "six figures a month" to feed data on its 700,000 users to a data-mining firm. Another offered a cash deal to replace Google ads on the extension with similar looking faux ads from the Chocolate Factory which could contain whatever the hirer wanted.

"I've spoken to a few on the phone and they sound just like normal people proposing a business deal," said the Honey team leader.

. "I'm sure they've justified what they do in their own mind so they don't sound shifty or unsure at all. Mental gymnastics is an amazing thing."

Google has declined to comment on the matter directly, but the firm tightened up the terms and conditions of its extensions policy in December to try and crack down on code that includes nasty little surprises. It also warned about code subversion in October, and has been steadily locking down its distribution channel for extensions.

People close to the matter said that this problem isn't going to go away soon, however, and expressed fears that we might be on the cusp of a new malware vector similar to that seen with the boom in spyware apps 20 years ago.

The solution is to check applications automatically or by hand to see if there are any unpleasant additions to seemingly innocuous apps, but that's a massive task, say sources. End users are going to be the first responders if something does happen, but it seems Google is planning a major investment in systems to clean up any infection points as soon as they occur.

The company could, of course, take the Apple route and lock down its software distribution to a single store where all apps are tightly checked before release. But this goes very much against Google's open-code ethos, and is rather expensive and restrictive to boot.

In the meantime it's a case of buyer beware and keeping vigilant. Developers might also want to consider any offers for their code if they are to avoid besmirching their long-term reputations for short-term profit. ®

Intelligent flash storage arrays

More from The Register

next story
'Regin': The 'New Stuxnet' spook-grade SOFTWARE WEAPON described
'A degree of technical competence rarely seen'
You really need to do some tech support for Aunty Agnes
Free anti-virus software, expires, stops updating and p0wns the world
You stupid BRICK! PCs running Avast AV can't handle Windows fixes
Fix issued, fingers pointed, forums in flames
Privacy bods offer GOV SPY VICTIMS a FREE SPYWARE SNIFFER
Looks for gov malware that evades most antivirus
Patch NOW! Microsoft slings emergency bug fix at Windows admins
Vulnerability promotes lusers to domain overlords ... oops
HACKERS can DELETE SURVEILLANCE DVRS remotely – report
Hikvision devices wide open to hacking, claim securobods
prev story

Whitepapers

Choosing cloud Backup services
Demystify how you can address your data protection needs in your small- to medium-sized business and select the best online backup service to meet your needs.
Getting started with customer-focused identity management
Learn why identity is a fundamental requirement to digital growth, and how without it there is no way to identify and engage customers in a meaningful way.
10 threats to successful enterprise endpoint backup
10 threats to a successful backup including issues with BYOD, slow backups and ineffective security.
Reg Reader Research: SaaS based Email and Office Productivity Tools
Read this Reg reader report which provides advice and guidance for SMBs towards the use of SaaS based email and Office productivity tools.
The hidden costs of self-signed SSL certificates
Exploring the true TCO for self-signed SSL certificates, including a side-by-side comparison of a self-signed architecture versus working with a third-party SSL vendor.