Chrome Extensions: Handy Tools or an Admin’s Biggest Nightmare?

Google Chrome is my default browser at work. I use it every day on my Windows 10 device because of it’s broader compatibility with various websites and web standards. I use several different Chrome extensions to make my job and life easier at times, but have recently had to combat them in the educational technology environment. 

A bit of a backstory to preface my opinion. I started my job as a Technology Systems Specialist with Putnam County Schools in February of 2016. From day one in my new job I began to notice students using various Chrome extensions to by-pass the local and state filters in place and required for E-Rate. I brought up the subject on how we could combat this but we never formulated a plan.

Fast-forward to February of 2017. I was asked by the principal in the school where I am currently working to look into some browser histories for several students who had been accused of accessing inappropriate material using district owned devices on the district network. After 3.5 hours of logging into machines as the students and pulling their browser histories and inspecting the extensions they had installed in Chrome, we would deny network access to 6 of them for violating the District Acceptable Use Policy (AUP). To say that I was upset and/or annoyed would be an understatement.

This incident pushed me to implement a way to prevent this from happening again. That afternoon I downloaded the Google Chrome ADM/ADMX templates for group policy and began to experiment with ways to control and manage the browser on our network. By the end of the day I had fully setup and tested new group policy objects that would black-list all Chrome extensions except for ones we placed on a specific white-list. These were setup as user policies and would apply to the affected users on any machine they would log into on our network. I contacted our Network Engineer and explained to him the entire ordeal that I had to look into that day and that I was able to get these group policy objects created and ready to deploy. We discussed the best way to do the deployment and decided to apply it to all of the student organizational units (OUs) in the district that afternoon. Starting the next day I began to notice, in my school, that the group policy was taking affect and eliminating these extensions from being used on our network.

I love Chrome extensions that have a genuine purpose and use them everyday, as I said at the beginning of this post. I use AdBlock Plus, AdBlock for YouTube, Google Tone, Bit.ly, and other extensions almost daily. They serve and great purpose and make my life and job so much easier at times. However, some extensions can create issues in an educational and enterprise environment. UltraSurf, HotSpotShield, and other VPN clients allow users to bypass our filtering in place that is required because we receive funding from the FCC’s E-Rate program. Using these tools would put us out of compliance and run the risk of us no longer receiving these funds. Overall my opinion on the use of Chrome extensions is mixed, as you can see in this post. I love that they can provide some great functionality to the browser, but hate that they can make management a nightmare from an IT perspective.

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