More than 500 browser extensions downloaded millions of times from Google’s Chrome Web Store surreptitiously uploaded private browsing data to attacker-controlled servers, researchers said on Thursday.
This story originally appeared on Ars Technica, a trusted source for technology news, tech policy analysis, reviews, and more. Ars is owned by WIRED’s parent company, Condé Nast.
The extensions were part of a long-running malvertising and ad-fraud scheme that was discovered by independent researcher Jamila Kaya. She and researchers from Cisco-owned Duo Security eventually identified 71 Chrome Web Store extensions that had more than 1.7 million installations. After the researchers privately reported their findings to Google, the company identified more than 430 additional extensions. Google has since removed all known extensions.
“In the case reported here, the Chrome extension creators had specifically made extensions that obfuscated the underlying advertising functionality from users,” Kaya and Duo Security researcher Jacob Rickerd wrote in a report. “This was done in order to connect the browser clients to a command and control architecture, exfiltrate private browsing data without the users’ knowledge, expose the user to risk of exploit through advertising streams, and attempt to evade the Chrome Web Store’s fraud detection mechanisms.”
A Maze of Redirects, Malware, and More
The extensions were mostly presented as tools that provided various promotion- and advertising-as-a service utilities. In fact, they engaged in ad fraud and malvertising by shuffling infected browsers through a maze of sketchy domains. Each plugin first connected to a domain that used the same name as the plugin (e.g.: Mapstrek[.]com or ArcadeYum[.]com) to check for instructions on whether to uninstall themselves.
The plugins then redirected browsers to one of a handful of hard-coded control servers to receive additional instructions, locations to upload data, advertisement feed lists, and domains for future redirects. Infected browsers then uploaded user data, updated plugin configurations, and flowed through a stream of site redirections.
Thursday’s report continued:
Many of the redirections led to benign ads for products from Macy’s, Dell, and Best Buy. What made the scheme malicious and fraudulent was (a) the large volume of ad content (as many as 30 redirects in some cases), (b) the deliberate concealment of most ads from end users, and (c) the use of the ad redirect streams to send infected browsers to malware and phishing sites. Two malware samples tied to the plugin sites were:
All but one of the sites used in the scheme weren’t previously categorized as malicious or fraudulent by threat intelligence services. The exception was the state of Missouri, which listed DTSINCE[.]com, one of the handful of hard-coded control servers, as a phishing site.