a burst of colours

Dormant Colors browser hijackers could be used for more nefarious tasks, report says

Researchers from Guardio, a cybersecurity company specializing in web browser protection, recently revealed a campaign involving a trove of popular yet malicious extensions programmed to steal user searches, browsing data, and affiliation to thousands of targeted sites.

Nicknamed “Dormant Colors,” this campaign involves at least 30 variants of browser extensions for Chrome and Edge, once available in their respective stores (you can’t find them there now). The campaign was named as such because all the extensions offer browser color customization options, and their “maliciousness” lie dormant until triggered by their creator.

The inexhaustive list of 30 browser extensions belonging to the Dormant Colors campaign. Note these are extension names with their icons. (Source: Guardio)

According to researchers, the campaign starts with malvertising in the form of ads on web pages or redirects from offered video and download links. If a site visitor attempts to download what an ad offers or watch a video stream, they are redirected to a page informing them they need to download an extension first. Of course, an extension is never required. It’s part of the campaign to make users believe an extension download is needed.

Once visitors confirm the download, one of the 30 extensions above is installed on the browser. The extension then redirects users to various pages that surreptitiously side-load malicious scripts, which instruct it to begin hijacking user searches and inserting affiliate links.

When hijacking user searches, the extension redirects search query results to display results from sites affiliated with the extension developers. Doing this gives them money from ad impressions and the sale of search data.

Another way that surreptitious extension developers wrongfully gain money is by redirecting users to the same page but with an affiliate link appended to the URL. For example, a user visits 365games.co.uk to buy video game merchandise. After the default page to this site finishes loading, the extension redirects the user to the same page but with an affiliate link included. The URL in the address bar would look something like this: 365games.co.uk/{affiliate-related string}.

Users visiting Amazon, AliExpress, and porn sites should expect to see affiliate redirections when hit with this campaign. 

It’s worrying that the average internet user hardly notices this campaign’s quick and easy money-making schemes because it has the potential to go beyond hijacking and URL sleight-of-hand. Guardio researchers say developers could program their extensions to direct users to phishing pages to steal credentials, especially those used to log in to work-related accounts. They could also write side-loaded code telling the extension to point users to a malware download site.

“This campaign is still up and running, shifting domains, generating new extensions, and re-inventing more color and style-changing functions you can for sure manage without,” said Guardio researchers in their full write-up. “At the end of the day, it’s not only affiliation fees being collected on your back, this is your privacy as well as your internet experience being compromised here, in ways that can target organizations by harvesting credentials and hijacking accounts and financial data.”