Openness and security: a balancing act for the add-ons ecosystem

Add-ons offer a powerful way for people to customize their web experience in Firefox. From content blocking and media enhancement to productivity tooling, add-ons allow third-party developers to create, remix, and share new products and experiences for the web. The same extensibility that allows developers to create utility and delight in Firefox, however, can also be used by malicious actors to harvest and sell user data.

With an ecosystem of 20,000+ extensions hosted on addons.mozilla.org (AMO), hundreds of thousands of self-distributed extensions, and millions of users around the world, finding the right balance between openness and security is a key challenge for our small team. Developers need to feel supported on our platform, and users need to feel safe installing add-ons, so we continually make adjustments to balance these interests.

Adapting our review model

Prior to the adoption of a new extensions API in 2017, buggy or malicious add-ons could take nearly full control of Firefox, and in some cases, a user’s device. Because these extensions could do so much potential damage, all add-ons hosted on addons.mozilla.org (AMO) had to pass human review before they could be released to users. This led to long delays where developers sometimes waited weeks, if not months, for their submissions to be reviewed. In some cases, developers waited months for an add-on to be reviewed, only to have it rejected.

The transition to the new extensions API greatly limited the potential for add-ons to cause damage. Reducing the attack surface enabled us to move to a post-submission review model, where extensions undergo automated checks and are prioritized for human review based on certain risk factors before becoming available, usually within a few hours. All add-ons are subject to human review at any time after publication.

Human reviews are still necessary

Since the transition to a post-submission review model, we have continued to make adjustments to our products, systems, and processes to maintain a balance between user safety and developer support. While we’ve made gains in new mechanisms to combat malicious activity, human review remains the most reliable method for verifying the safety of an add-on because of the complex and contextual nature of add-on code written in JavaScript.

However, human code review is a resource-intensive activity. As we weighed our options for how to keep add-ons safe for users in 2019, it became clear that we only possessed the resources to guarantee human reviews for a small number of extensions. Because we already had an editorial program in place for identifying and featuring add-ons, it made sense to build a trusted add-on program off past curatorial efforts. This became the Recommended Extensions program.

Currently, we human-review every version of each of our 100+ Recommended Extensions before publication. Beyond that, our limited review resources are focused on monitoring and stamping out malicious activity that may be lurking in our ecosystem. For a sense of scale, AMO receives 20,000+ new version submissions per month.

Since we can only guarantee human-review for all versions of Recommended Extensions, AMO applies a warning message to the listing pages of all non-Recommended extensions. The intention of this message is to let users know that since a non-Recommended extension may not have been reviewed by a human, we can’t guarantee it’s safe.

Developer feedback and future plans

We’ve heard feedback from developers whose add-ons are not in the Recommended program that they are concerned the warning message can discourage users from installing their add-ons. Some have asked whether it’s possible to request human reviews for their add-ons so they can be badged as safe to install. We are exploring ways to better support these developers and provide more discovery opportunities for them.

During the remainder of 2020, we will experiment with new programs to address these issues and help more extensions become successful. Please stay tuned to this blog for updates on the upcoming experiments and opportunities for participation, and head to our community forum with any questions or feedback.

The post Openness and security: a balancing act for the add-ons ecosystem appeared first on Mozilla Add-ons Blog.

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