It’s always nice to get something for free. Or is it? There are really some free lunches on the net. But what appears to be free can have a hidden price, which often is paid by other means than money.
Internet did for a long time lack payment models and everything on the net was truly free. This was fine on a net that was an academic tool and playground for enthusiasts. Our Internet of today is totally different, and to a large extent business driven. But the culture of getting stuff for free on the net is deeply rooted. People are used to free stuff, or are hesitant to use payment on the net in fear of fraud. This has created a lot of new business models based on free products and services. Either genuinely free or with a hidden compensation. One of the important skills for today’s cybercitizens is to recognize these business models and understand the hidden risks and compensations. Read on to learn how.
Before you take the bait you should always ask yourself: Why is this thing offered for free? That’s the key questions as the vendor’s motives dictate if the product or service is safe to use. First look for info about who made the product and why. Then try to place it in one of the categories below. Now it will be a lot easier to make an educated guess about how safe it is.
A very common way to provide free products or services. Ads are showed to you and the vendor gets money from the advertisers. Be careful with ad-ware your children are using. You have no control over the ads and some content may be unsuitable. Otherwise these are mostly legit if you don’t find the ads too annoying.
“If you don’t pay for the product, then you ARE the product.” This is taking ad-ware to the next level. Big data companies like Facebook and Google offer their services for free, but create extensive profiles over their users and utilize them for marketing purposes. This is a privacy problem as you have no control over what data they collect and how it is (mis)used. Intelligence agencies are on top of that also eager to tap into your data. If Facebook knows something about you, then NSA knows too. The problem here is that it is very hard to know what price you really pay for the “free” service. You should consider if the privacy risk is worth taking for the value you get in return.
Many create programs and web services for fun. Giving it away and seeing that people really use it is part of the joy. Some may also have ideological motives, like fighting corporate dominance, guarding peoples’ privacy or defeating net espionage. Products in this category are genuinely free and there’s no hidden compensation. The Firefox browser is an excellent example. The Linux operating system is another.
This “business model” is safe for the customer, but the products and services may not always be the safest choice technically. Providing safe software is a tough task and requires constant maintenance. Hobbyists are not always professional enough for this. In this category you will find a wide range of products with technical security ranging from excellent to very poor. It’s also futile to expect good support services in this category, unless the product has a well-working user forum that provides peer-support.
This is a variant of the previous class. Some providers of free software ask for donations openly. This is like a product with a voluntary payment. A lot of people will use the product for free, but some will contribute a couple of bucks to cover the vendor’s expenses. Wikipedia is a good example. BTW, have you ever donated to them? I have and I think it’s very well spent money. The value I get in return is far greater.
Some free services are provided with tax-payers’ money. These are typically OK to use. Quality might vary tough, as the public sector often lacks the culture of customer service and competitiveness.
Many vendors provide a basic product or service for free, and more functionality or capacity for a price. This is a nice way to let customers try it out and decide later if they need the paid version. Sometimes the product is entirely free and the business model is based on selling support services for it. There’s nothing wrong with this business model and the products are usually OK if the vendor is trustworthy.
Getting something for “free” when buying something else is a common marketing trick. It’s not really a free product, the pricing scheme is just set up to hide its true cost. A common example is receiving a “free” mobile phone or 4G-dongle when signing up for a 2-year subscription. Hardware prices are declining and many people have a misconception that these bundled items are worth more than they really are.
Some content is offered to you free of charge and with no strings attached, but the distributor lacks the right to distribute it. Distributing stuff without permission is illegal practically everywhere, but your status as receiver is not as clear. Whether it is a crime to download the stuff depends on your country’s legislation. Also remember that the common peer-to-peer sharing networks, like BitTorrent, both download and share at once. It’s also common to distribute malware masqueraded as pirated software. The safest way is to look for the content’s original vendor or distribution point, and download it from there. Then you will learn if it really is free, and lose the malware as an extra bonus.
Malware and scams are often masqueraded as free offerings. Be extremely careful if you are tempted to sign up for anything that sends you “free” information as text messages. Your mobile phone number is a payment method and scammers can charge you for bogus messages sent to your mobile. It can be next to impossible to get them cleaned off the bill. What you think is a handy utility program may also turn out to be malicious software. If you can’t figure out why the tool is free, the real reason may be to plant malware in your computer or mobile device.
Let’s finish with a checklist for people considering using a free service or product:
Not good enough. That's the assessment of the Parliament's Joint Committee that has been investigating the Draft Investigatory Powers Bill, which will set the guidelines for how the UK carries out intelligence gathering in this era when terror and cyberthreats are merging. And our Cyber Security Advisor Erka Koivunen who testified in front of the committee, agrees. "Sharper, clearer definitions are required in order to protect both the privacy of citizens and viability of the British tech industry," he said after reviewing the 198-page report. Legislators hope to pass the bill before the Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Act 2014 expires in December of this year. A few major problems stood out for Erka. "The committee’s case for Equipment Interference, known by some as 'hacking,' is persuasive and also give voice to the equally persuasive critics of the Government having the power to intrude upon communications in way that lawfully captures evidence," he said. "However, there appears to be little discussion about collateral damage caused by bulk equipment interference activities. We’ve seen in the Stellar Wind and Belgacom cases that equipment interference activity on non-terrorist and non-combatant organizations can be used to create stepping-stones to the intended targets, or as way to hide the intelligence traces that would point the operation back to GCHQ." Limiting the scope of investigations is key, along with allowing developers that ability to preserve the integrity of their products. "We support Mozilla and the open source community in the insistence that all vulnerabilities should be identified and fixed, regardless of who put them there," Erka said. The committee made a strikingly straightforward case for bulk collection of data, noting that search tools can make such information relevant. "However, the justification for such powers -- 'why would the authorities request the bulk powers if they didn't believe them to be effective' -- is simply naïve," Erka said. "It has been demonstrated many times over that GCHQ and NSA have invested lots of time and resources in bulk collection. It is only natural for them to defend their investment and seek to continue their work without interruption. Doing otherwise would put past conduct under scrutiny and future activities in question." Privacy advocates generally agree that the bill should not become law in its current form. "It needs more than mere tweaking, it needs to be fundamentally rethought and rebuilt," said Lord Paul Strasburger, who was on the committee. "Like the other two committees, [we] found the Bill to be sloppy in its wording and short on vital details," he said. Erka notes that the clock is ticking quickly. "The 'sunset clause' now forces the UK Government to work against the clock as the old RIPA authorities will cease to exist in the near future. Talk about "going dark!'" The threat of a complete lapse in surveillance will be wielded by proponents of a purposely vague and broad law. That should not happen, especially given the abundance of input the government has. "The bill, as written, fails to address our concerns about the potential for abuse and lack of oversight. We applaud the committee for addressing these shortcomings—and encourage the Government not to use the rush to pass the law as an excuse to pass a flawed bill." Photo: GCHQ/Crown Copyright/MOD
We can see signs of a disturbing trend. Nowadays there is a built-in update process in almost every software product, and the automatic updates are essential for our devices’ security. The main driver to implement them was to be able to reach out quickly when vulnerabilities are discovered. And most users got the message. We understand the need for updates and let them be installed promptly. This is great from security point of view. So I’m very sad to see increasing misuse of users’ trust in the updates. Apple is making headlines right now with the “Error 53 scandal”. In short, upgrading to iOS 9 may brick your device, that is render it totally useless, if the new system detects that an unauthorized repair has been performed. The official reason is that Apple wants to protect the user’s data against attacks involving tampering with the device. The new functionality does however smell to high heaven. Apple has already a bad reputation for keeping its ecosystem closed and tightly managed, and this incident just feeds that reputation. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that a move like this also benefits authorized Apple service companies over unauthorized. Bashing Windows 10 is also popular right now. I’m not going into all the security and privacy issues here. But I think the way Microsoft is pushing out Windows 10 to users of previous versions is disturbing. Yes, the automatically distributed upgrade is convenient, if you want to upgrade. And as said, upgrading is usually good from security point of view. But people may have tons of valid reasons to postpone the upgrade, and this is where things get nasty. Several gigabytes are downloaded anyway and use up disk space in vain. Language in the upgrade dialog suggests you have to upgrade. And it starts all over even if you decline, clean up and disable the updates. Even worse, now the upgrade may even start automatically without your consent! People are raging over these incidents because they cause major inconvenience and interferes with your ability to use a product you have purchased. But another at least equally severe side effect is that every case like this undermines peoples’ trust in update services. I bet people with a bricked iPhone will be hesitant to install new versions of iOS in the future. And my opinion about Microsoft’s update service has definitively changed while defending a touch-screen computer with Windows 8.1 from the upgrade. Yes, I have tried Windows 10 on it. No, it didn’t work properly so I had to roll back to 8.1. So to conclude. Rapid updates are more important than ever. Therefore it is very sad to see companies misuse the update channels to roll out features and versions that are designed mainly to boost their own business. The outcome may be that people to a larger extent decline updates or try to block update systems that can’t be disabled. Permanent damage has been caused in that case. Micke PS. There’s some good news for people who want to stay on their previous Windows versions. There is a registry setting that can be used to prevent the upgrade. See MS Knowledge Base Article 3080351 for more details. Image by Nick Hubbard
Today is Safer Internet Day – a day to talk about what kind of place the Internet is becoming for kids, and what people can do to make it a safe place for kids and teens to enjoy. We talk a lot about various online threats on this blog. After all, we’re a cyber security company, and it’s our job to secure devices and networks to keep people protected from more than just malware. But protecting kids and protecting adults are different ballparks. Kids have different needs, and as F-Secure Researcher Mikael Albrecht has pointed out, this isn’t always recognized by software developers or device manufacturers. So how does this actually impact kids? Well, it means parents can’t count on the devices and services kids use to be completely age appropriate. Or completely safe. Social media is a perfect example. Micke has written in the past that social media is basically designed for adults, making any sort of child protection features more of an afterthought than a focus. Things like age restrictions are easy for kids to work around. So it’s not difficult for kids to hop on Facebook or Twitter and start social networking, just like their parents or older siblings. But these services aren't designed for kids to connect with adults. So where does that leave parents? Parental controls are great tools that parents can use to monitor, and to a certain extent, limit what kids can do online. But they’re not perfect. Particularly considering the popularity of mobile devices amongst kids. Regulating content on desktop browsers and mobile apps are two different things, and while there are a lot of benefits to using mobile apps instead of web browsers, it does make using special software to regulate content much more difficult. The answer to challenges like these is the less technical approach – talking to kids. There’s some great tips for parents on F-Secure’s Digital Parenting web page, with talking points, guidelines, and potential risks that parents should learn more about. That might seem like a bit of a challenge to parents. F-Secure’s Chief Research Officer Mikko Hypponen has pointed out that today’s kids have never experienced a world without the Internet. It’s as common as electricity for them. But the nice thing about this approach is that parents can do this just by spending time with kids and learning about the things they like to do online. So if you don’t know what your kids are up to this Safer Internet Day, why not enjoy the day with your kids (or niece/nephew, or even a kid you might be babysitting) by talking over what they like to do online, and how they can enjoy doing it safely.