To boost security, Mozilla launches plugin checker

The Web site checks 17 plugins, but these checks will be built in to the Firefox 3.6 browser too

Mozilla developers have launched a new online tool that tells Firefox users whether popular add-on components such as Java or QuickTime are up to date.

The new Plugin Check page tests for more than 15 popular plugins right now, and Mozilla plans to add more in the future. "Visitors to the page can see which plugins they have installed and, for any that are outdated, follow an easy link to the update site," wrote Mozilla's "human shield," Johnathan Nightingale in a Tuesday blog posting.

A test version of the site was introduced last week. The final page tests for plugins such as Silverlight, Picasa, iTunes and Acrobat.

Firefox can already check to make sure that add-ons, installed through the addons.mozilla.org Web site, are up to date. But this can't be done with the plugin software targeted by the new Web page, Nightingale said in an e-mail interview. "Plugins like RealPlayer, Flash or Silverlight are pieces of software installed on your machine outside of Firefox's control," he said. "They interact with Firefox, but they are independent software packages, and make their own choices about when and how to update."

Keeping plugins up-to-date is becoming increasingly important. Mozilla says that about 30 percent of browser crashes are caused by obsolete plugins. Besides that annoyance, however, they also pose a security risk. That's because out-of-date plugins are increasingly exploited by hackers in Web-based attacks that place malicious software on the victim's computer. Flaws in Adobe's Flash and pdf formats, Apple's QuickTime, and RealPlayer have all been widely exploited in this way in the past few years.

Security conscious Firefox users can use the Plugin Check site for now, but the checks will be built into the upcoming Firefox 3.6 browser, expected by year's end Nightingale said. That should help keep many more Firefox users up-to-date.

"We can't control how plugins choose to update themselves," he said. "But we can help our users to know when an update is available."

After criminals launched widespread attacks based on a flaw in Adobe's Flash player earlier this year, Mozilla built an automatic Flash checker into its browser. Within days of its release last month, 10 million Firefox users had clicked through to Adobe's Web site after being alerted that their Flash player needed an upgrade.

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