Browsers such as Chrome, Firefox and Safari include useless functions which affect the safety of Internet use. That is the conclusion of research by the University of Illinois in Chicago, to be presented late this month.

Browsers are developing at an astonishing rate, and their creators regularly add new functions to these Internet programs. One reason they do this is in response to changing browsing habits. Desktop computers are making way for mobile use, and people are tending to watch more videos and read fewer articles on the web.

However, there is apparently a drawback to this constant development. All the extra functions provide back doors through which criminals can gain access. That is the conclusion of research by American computer scientists, who drew up an inventory of browser functions and subjected them to a risk-benefit analysis.

25 percent less

According to the researchers, one quarter of the browser functions could be quite simply dispensed of, without detrimental effect on the websites. And 94 percent of the tested sites continued to function satisfactorily. The researchers therefore developed an add-on, a program which can be installed in your browser, to deactivate all the extra browser functions.

The list of 'surplus' functions includes things which most people would probably never expect from a browser. The detection of the amount of light in the room where the computer is located, for example. Or the creation of audio files. One of the most dangerous functions of a browser is when it performs graphical calculations. However innocent that may sound, it can ensure that the browser unintentionally demands a great deal of energy and computing power. And so a malicious website can 'hijack' a computer and expend that computing power.


The researchers took a close look at the Firefox browser. It is an open platform – therefore with an open source code – allowing them to clearly see all the browser functions. According to the Americans, Firefox is identical to other browsers such as Chrome or Safari in terms of its possibilities. In order to check whether deactivation of certain functions adversely affected websites, they visited 40 sites in the Alexa top 10,000, a ranking of the most frequently visited websites.

Even when the researchers removed 60% of functionality, this had no noticeable effect on the sites visited. To be clear, the plug-in developed by the researchers actually only deactivated the 25% most risky functions. This research clearly demonstrates how many 'useless' extras are included in browsers nowadays. The researchers recommend that unused or rare functions be removed, even if there is only a tiny risk of their misuse by an intruder.

Image: Francesco Lodolo



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