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Security & privacy

Browser plugin has been tracking people’s web browsing

At this point can any of us really expect to maintain privacy while browsing and using the internet? If nothing else, it sure seems like we shouldn’t.

Whether it’s sites that misuse the information we entrusted them with or malware that finds a way into systems, if we posted something anywhere, there’s at least a chance it will end up in another place.

Of course, sad as it may be, those kind of issues don’t really surprise us nowadays. But unfortunately they are not the only ways in which our online history can be taken.

Use Chrome or Firefox? You may have an issue

While the popular browsers themselves are not necessarily the problem, a plugin that works for them most definitely is. According to Robert Theaton, who is a software engineer from San Francisco, a plugin called “Stylish” has been hijacked by spyware.

Designed to let users customize the appearance of webpages within the browsers, it has at the same time been tracking and recording the web history of anyone who used it.

Theaton noted that all it took was one tracking request that contained just one session cookie to permanently associate a user account with a Stylish tracking identifier and once that happened, the plugin had all the data it needed to connect a real-world identity to a browsing history.

Evidently, Stylish had been recording browsing histories since 2017, which is when the plugin was bought by SimilarWeb. Therefore, the new owners were also able to connect individuals with all of their online activity, which even included Google search results.

In other words, the information collected could be used to help create a digital profile of you and tie it to an email address and/or real-world identity.

Was this hidden?

The idea that the plugin could be tracking your browsing is disconcerting, at least, but it also may not actually be a surprise. Back in 2017, when SimilarWeb bought Stylish, they said in an updated privacy policy that tracking was added in order to improve the browser extension.

In fact, they claim that the information gained helps to power some of the plugin’s functionality, including its ability to reveal styles to users when they visit sites in the browser.

But while it is understandable that they would track information regarding the style choices people make, it’s tough to find a reason for them to need things like full page URLs and Google search results.

I downloaded the plugin — what should I do?

Given that the tracking seems less nefarious than perhaps unnecessary, Stylish does provide an option to turn it off. Do that and you can use the plugin as you normally would.

But if this knowledge upsets you or you feel like Stylish is not worth the trouble, simply go ahead and delete it.

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