Chrome will block NPAPI plug-ins over stability, security concerns

Google plans to completely remove support for NPAPI plug-ins from Chrome by the end of 2014

By Lucian Constantin, IDG News Service |  Security

Plug-ins based on the NPAPI architecture will be blocked by default in Chrome starting early next year as Google moves toward completely removing support for them in the browser.

"NPAPI's 90s-era architecture has become a leading cause of hangs, crashes, security incidents, and code complexity," Justin Schuh, a Google Chrome security engineer, said Monday in a blog post. "Because of this, Chrome will be phasing out NPAPI support over the coming year."

First developed for Netscape, NPAPI (Netscape Plug-in Application Programming Interface) has long been the most popular plug-in architecture, supported by browsers like Mozilla Firefox, Google Chrome, Apple Safari, Opera and Konqueror.

However, NPAPI's security shortcomings, like the fact that it spawns processes with privileged access to the underlying operating system, have in recent years led to a surge in attacks that exploit vulnerabilities in browser plug-ins to silently install malware on computers when users visit compromised or malicious websites. Google, Mozilla and Opera responded to this threat by implementing click-to-play, an optional feature that prompts users for confirmation before executing plug-in based content.

Google went even further and in 2010, the company started developing a new plug-in architecture called PPAPI (Pepper Plugin API) or simply Pepper, that forces plug-in code to run securely inside a sandbox and makes it less susceptible to crashes.

In August 2012, following two years of collaborative work with Adobe, Google switched the Flash Player plug-in bundled with Chrome for Windows from NPAPI to PPAPI. One month later it did the same for Chrome on Mac OS X.

While click-to-play has been available in Chrome for several years, the feature has not been enabled by default, except for a number of plug-ins that Google considered to present a higher security risk, like Java, RealPlayer, QuickTime, Shockwave, Windows Media Player and Adobe Reader prior to Adobe Reader X. That policy will soon change.

"Starting in January 2014, Chrome will block webpage-instantiated NPAPI plug-ins by default on the Stable channel," Schuh said. A temporary exception will be made for the most popular NPAPI plug-ins that are not already being blocked for security reasons in order to avoid disruption to users, he said.

The plug-ins that will be temporarily whitelisted will be Silverlight, Unity, Google Earth, Google Talk and Facebook Video, as they were used by more than 5 percent of users during the past month. Java was used by almost 9 percent of users, but it's already on the list of blocked plug-ins.

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