Google introduces Chrome 'factory reset' pop-ups to tackle extensions hijacks

Google is stepping up its fight against malicious Chrome extensions with obvious prompts for Windows users whose browser settings appear to have been hijacked.

As the main window to the web, browsers make useful targets for hackers and one increasingly popular way to exploit them is through malicious browser extensions that hijack the software’s settings. These extensions can, for example, change the default search engine, inject unwanted ads into the browser, or in worse scenarios, steal passwords or lead the victim to other malware.

But according to Google, extensions that silently change browser settings are the top complaint among Chrome users despite previous efforts to combat them.

“It's an issue that’s continuing to grow at an alarming rate. You should always be in charge of your own Chrome settings,” said Linus Upson, vice president of engineering at Google, announcing the new prompts for Chrome on Windows.

Last October Google released a new “reset browser settings” button in the advanced settings page of Chrome, but the additional feature may not have reached its intended audience.

“To make sure the reset option reaches everyone who might need it, Chrome will be prompting Windows users whose settings appear to have been changed if they’d like to restore their browser settings back to factory default. If you’ve been affected by settings hijacking and would like to restore your settings, just click 'Reset' on the prompt below when it appears,” said Upson.

The action takes Chrome back to its factory settings, meaning that any extensions, apps or themes that have been installed will be disabled. However, they can be re-enabled through "More tools > Extensions".

Despite the new approach to get users to reset their settings, Upson notes some hijackers may have left behind processes that will hijack the browser again after the reset. For those, he suggests scouring its product forums for answers to some of the more widely known examples.

The new prompts add to a separate effort by Google in June last year to clean up its Chrome Web Store by automatically scanning extensions for potential malware. Previously it only removed them once they were found.

While the move reduced abuse of a main distribution hub for extensions, security vendor Symantec noted at the time it didn’t prevent the other popular channel — Facebook, where scammers touted features such as seeing who’s been looking at the user’s profile to convince victims into installing their extensions, which asked for broad permissions and often led to online surveys.

More recently, users of Chrome extensions have fallen prey to scammers that have purchased existing extensions on the store from developers and updated them to serve adware in order to monetise them.

Google’s Chrome Web Store policy regarding single-purpose extensions is designed to mitigate this abuse. While the policy applies to new extensions, Google won’t start enforcing them until June this year.

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