Recent reports have created buzz about browser extensions and the fact that they may be spying on you or inserting ads. I would like to be very clear: Social Fixer is completely safe and will never insert ads, track you, or spy on you. Ever.
In posts by Ars Technica (who previously wrote an article about me), How-To Geek, and Lifehacker, the sites explain how browser extensions can have code in them that may insert advertising, track you on the web, spy on your form submissions, or do other things you aren’t aware of.
What makes this especially scary is that most extensions update automatically. So an extension that is safe today may not be safe tomorrow, and the new code will be added to your computer without you being asked.
Here’s the real risk: Extension authors are increasingly being approached by others to sell their extensions and transfer ownership. Once these new people own the extension, they add in the malicious code and post an update, which gets pushed to all users’ computers automatically. They have instantly gained thousands of victims, who have no idea that anything has changed. Anti-virus and anti-spyware apps won’t detect it. Users may see the effects but have no idea what caused it. Or even worse, they may have their privacy breached and have no clue at all.
This is a serious issue, so I want to be very clear:
This Issue Is Old News To Me
- In 2011 I was asked to sell another single-purpose Facebook extension I threw together in a few hours. I wrote about it on Google Groups. I could tell it was suspicious, so I exposed it and turned down $700 in easy cash.
- I’ve been approach numerous times by people who want to monetize Social Fixer by inserting ads or user tracking. I always say no. I have written about this in a blog post: Why I Do Not Monetize Social Fixer or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Donation
- I am no fool about the potential value of my user base. With over a million users - all active users of Facebook – my extension is exactly what the trackers and adware peddlers want. And they would probably be willing to pay good money for it.
I could “cash out” and make some sweet cash. But…
I am an honest person, and my most valuable resource is my integrity. If I do eventually stop working on Social Fixer, I will want all my users to follow me to my next project, whatever it is.
I want to have a positive influence on others, and on the web.
I want to do what is right by users, and be respected for what I offer to the world.
I want people to value it so much that they reward me for my work by choice, and spread it to others because it is so valuable to them, not because my app spammed their wall on their behalf or tricked them with adware.
I’ve been on the internet for a long time, and you can probably look up much of what I’ve done. My reputation is solid, and I hope that I’ve never made decisions that harm others for my own personal gain. I think that so many people trust Social Fixer because of my character and history of being someone you can fully trust. That matters a lot to me.
It’s not always easy to take the high road. I’d love to get a big cash payout, pay off my house and cars, take my family to Disney World, and take a few years off work! I work really hard so some of those things can happen. But I will never do wrong by others or take advantage of them to get there.
So here’s my suggestion to everyone out there who uses browser extensions, or any other software, or who consumes and appreciates the content created by others:
Reward The Content Creators
Be willing to financially support the people who create the software you use, not because you have to but because it’s valuable to you. Make it financially rewarding to respect your privacy and security. Give them the incentive to decline the fast buck and do what is best for users.
I take donations to support Social Fixer. [Here’s the link to donate]. Sometimes I feel guilty about it, but honestly, only about 1-2% of users ever donate anyway. But the truth is, it takes many hours of work to create an extension like this. Once the fun creative part is done, it’s countless hours of debugging, support, testing, writing documentation, etc. It’s like a job, and a lot of the time it’s really not “fun” work at all. It’s exhausting.
I do it because I enjoy writing cool software that is helpful to a lot of people. But honestly, if the donations were to dry up completely, I would probably stop working on it. The only way I can justify spending many hours a week away from my family or sacrificing sleep is if it helps pay for a family vacation or to cover some car repairs. I am not a robot.
Support the people who create the things you love (whether it be software, art, music, writing, or any other creative venture). Otherwise, you may one day find that you’ve paid for it in a different way – through your privacy, security, or personal data.
As a general recommendation, be very cautious about any browser extensions you install. Not every developer has good intentions. Read the reviews, check on the person or company who is distributing it, and see what else they have done. If it seems suspicious, err on the side of caution and don’t install it.
It is your responsibility as a user to be your own advocate for safety and privacy.
As a developer and creator, it is my responsibility to always treat you with respect and never take advantage of the trust you place in the code that I write. I promise to never break that trust!
(Full Disclosure: Social Fixer does send minimal data back to my server, but it’s only the type and version of the extension you are using, so I can keep track of how many different versions are out in the wild. I have often considered tracking additional information solely for the purpose of making the extension better for users by identifying which new Facebook features are seen by how many people and what form they take. So far, I have not implemented anything like this, and if I ever do, it will always be opt-in, never opt-out. And it would only be done because it would help make the app better for users.)