ActiveX controls are Internet Explorer’s version of plug-ins. For example, Internet Explorer’s Flash player is an ActiveX control. Unfortunately, ActiveX controls have been a significant source of security problems.

ActiveX controls are essentially pieces of software and have access to your entire computer if you opt to install and run them. If you’re using Internet Explorer, websites can prompt you to install ActiveX controls — and this feature can be used for malicious purposes.

What ActiveX Controls Do

An ActiveX control is a small program for Internet Explorer, often referred to as an add-on. ActiveX controls are like other programs — they aren’t restricted from doing bad things with your computer. They could monitor your personal browsing habits, install malware, generate pop-ups, log your keystrokes and passwords, and do other malicious things.

ActiveX controls are actually not Internet Explorer-only. They also work in other Microsoft applications, such as Microsoft Office.

Other browsers, such as Firefox, Chrome, Safari, and Opera, all use other types of browser plug-ins. ActiveX controls only function in Internet Explorer. A website that requires an ActiveX control is an Internet Explorer-only website.

Security Concerns

You should avoid installing ActiveX controls unless you trust their source. Certain ActiveX controls are normal — for example, if you’re using Internet Explorer you probably have the Flash Player ActiveX control installed — but you should avoid installing other ActiveX controls if possible.

For example, while Oracle is a trustworthy corporation that isn’t out to infect your computer (unless you count the Ask Toolbar they slip into updates), the Java ActiveX control has security vulnerabilities and could be used to infect your computer. The more ActiveX controls you install, the more websites can take advantage of their problems to damage your computer. Reduce your attack surface by uninstalling potentially vulnerable ActiveX controls you don’t use.

Modern versions of Internet Explorer include features like ActiveX Filtering, Protected Mode, and “killbits” that prevent vulnerable ActiveX controls from running. Unfortunately, ActiveX controls are unsecure by their very design and nothing can be done to make them completely secure.

Managing ActiveX Controls

You can view the ActiveX controls you have installed by clicking the gear menu in Internet Explorer and selecting Manage Add-ons. Click the box under Show and select All add-ons.

You will probably have a variety of common ActiveX controls installed system-wide, such as Adobe’s Shockwave Flash, Microsoft Silverlight, and Windows Media Player. You can disable these from here, but you’ll have to uninstall them from the Control Panel if you want to remove them from your system.

To display ActiveX controls that you’ve downloaded via the browser, select Downloaded controls in the Show box.

To uninstall a control you’ve downloaded, double-click it and click the Remove button in the More information window.

In summary, ActiveX controls are dangerous and you should only install them if you need to do so and trust the source.

Sure, install the Flash Player ActiveX control — but if you’re browsing the web an a website wants to install an ActiveX control, you should probably decline the offer. Even if you do opt to install an ActiveX control from a trusted source, you should probably remove it when it’s no longer necessary to reduce your attack surface and help secure your computer.

Profile Photo for Chris Hoffman Chris Hoffman
Chris Hoffman is Editor-in-Chief of How-To Geek. He's written about technology for over a decade and was a PCWorld columnist for two years. Chris has written for The New York Times and Reader's Digest, been interviewed as a technology expert on TV stations like Miami's NBC 6, and had his work covered by news outlets like the BBC. Since 2011, Chris has written over 2,000 articles that have been read more than one billion times---and that's just here at How-To Geek.
Read Full Bio »