Ask LH: What Is Java, Is It Insecure, And Do I Need It?

Dear Lifehacker, It seems like every other day that people are freaking out about another Java security hole. Can you settle the Java debate for me once and for all? What is it, really? Is it the same as JavaScript? Should I disable it? Won’t all my websites break if I do? Sincerely,Pitiful Plugins

Dear Pitiful,

Java is indeed a pain, but the good news is few people actually need it in the first place. Here’s what you need to know about what it does, what its problems are and how to get rid of it.

What Is Java?

Java is a programming language that developers use to create applications on your computer. It isn’t as popular as it once was (its big selling point back in the day was the ability to write code that ran on a wide variety of operating systems). Chances are you’ve downloaded a program that required the Java runtime and thus installed it on your system. Java also has a web plug-in that allows you to run these apps in your browser.

Java is not, however, the same as JavaScript. In fact, they don’t have a lot of similarities besides their names. JavaScript is used only in web browsers to create web pages rather than “apps” that run inside them. This can be a bit confusing since Java also runs in your browser. A large number of websites use JavaScript; very few require Java.

With that in mind, we’re only going to discuss Java here. That’s the really insecure one that’s driving everyone crazy. For a better explainer on JavaScript, check out this guide from our friends at the How-To Geek. For the answer to your question, read on.

Is Java Insecure?

Yes, Java is insecure, and not just normal I-can-get-past-your-lock-screen insecure either. Kaspersky Lab says that Java was responsible for 50 per cent of all cyber attacks last year, and security experts are constantly advising that you disable it in your browser. It opens up a number of holes that can allow criminals to steal passwords, credit card numbers and other personal information. And, as you’ve noticed from reading news on the web, new security holes are popping up all the time.

Should I Disable it?

Java has two parts: the runtime that runs on your computer (and lets you run Java apps), and the browser plug-in that comes along with it. Most of the time, the browser plug-in is what causes all the security problems. And since you probably don’t even need the browser plug-in, we recommend disabling it.

To disable Java in your browser, head to your browser’s plug-in page. In Chrome, you can do this by typing chrome://plugins into the address bar. In Firefox, you can do so by going to Tools > Add-Ons > Plugins. Then just find Java and click Disable. That’s all it takes!

However, the Java runtime installed on your computer is annoying in and of itself, particularly on Windows. It’s constantly nagging you for updates, taking up space in your system tray, and chances are you don’t even need it. In a lot of cases, you probably installed Java for some one-time app back in the day and never needed it again.

We recommend uninstalling Java altogether. If you find that an app asks for Java after the fact, you can always reinstall it. Open up the Start menu, search for uninstall a program, press Enter and choose Java from the uninstall list. You’ll be happy you did.


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