My dentist was asking about his computer this evening. He’s been having some trouble that might indicate a virus or could just be a sign that the computer’s getting a bit old. Along the way, he talked about some add-ons that seem to have added themselves to his system and he wasn’t really sure what they were. Between the novocain and the drill, I’m sure my answer was completely incoherent so here is an attempt to better answer the questions “What is an add-on” and “Should I let it be added to my computer”.

First, what is an add-on? (Other names include plug-in, extension and sometimes theme. More on that later.) An add-on is an optional software component that, in theory, increases the functionality and/or usability of the original program. Most people learn about add-ons in the context of their internet browser, especially if you are a Firefox user. Add-ons can improve your computer’s security (by blocking scripts and ads), make certain actions easier (like viewing pictures or updating webpages), improve compatibility with other programs such as Java or QuickTime or just customize the look and feel of the computer.

Add-ons can also be malicious trojan horses, bringing along all sorts of viruses and vulnerabilities to your computer. If you find an add-on you like – and there are some good ones out there – be sure that you get it from a reliable source. If you’re looking for add-ons to Mozilla’s Firefox, for example, go to Tools/Add-ons and look for the Browse all add-ons link. That will take you directly to the official Mozilla site. Internet Explorer has a similar path.

Some add-ons can be very helpful. I really like NoScript and AdBlock for Firefox. Between the two of them, they make my browsing much safer.

Many add-ons are neutral from a security point of view – they may make your browsing experience better but they neither help nor hurt your computer’s security.

Some are downright dangerous – add-ons that include some hidden code that lets the author control your computer or that otherwise subvert your security. Those tend to get filtered out of the legitimately sponsored sites pretty quickly but they are a real danger in chat rooms and unmoderated forums.

And an unfortunate number of add-ons are offered with a good heart but either badly written or just don’t take into account all the possible configurations that are out there – and when used in combination with some other add-on or program, they create new vulnerabilities that didn’t exist before. I put all the Google and Yahoo Toolbar add-ons in this category – well-intentioned but fundamentally unsafe.

Add-ons also tend to go out of support fairly quickly. They are often written by volunteers, after all. Microsoft has a financial incentive to keep programmers pounding away, patching their products. If a hacker finds a hole in an add-on, it may or may not get fixed quickly.

If you find an add-on you like, read the reviews to see what other users say about it. See if anyone has had concerns about unexpected interactions or problems. See if it’s been updated recently and find a legitimate download site. Then back everything up on your computer before you install it.

On the other hand, if your computer “spontaneously” offers to install an add-on, the right answer is almost invariably to reject it. If it looks like it might be useful, go to a legitimate site and read the reviews, then decide for yourself.

When an add-on is primarily designed to change the look and feel – background colors, fonts, logos, maybe even layout and organization of buttons – but not to change the underlying function of the program, that’s usually called a “theme”. There are literally thousands of themes available including ones for just about every sports franchise imaginable. They are commonly available not merely for your browser but also for your phone and for many other computer applications such as Media Player. Themes are usually safer to load since they are not supposed to affect the program but be careful. Something advertised as merely a theme can still include malicious code. And a badly written theme can cover up functions you do need, like say, the undo button – it’s still there but you can’t reach it because some other button is in the way. Like other add-ons discussed above, only consider themes from reputable sources. If you’re not sure, stick with the default theme.

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