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. younited from F-Secure is a good example, like most other cloud services.
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:
If you use the internet like a normal person, password management is a pain. It doesn't have to be that way. Over the last two months through Triberr, we invited a group of bloggers we enjoy to work as brand ambassadors on behalf of our password manager KEY, which we built to make securing your accounts simple. They tried KEY out and shared their experience with their readers. By watching them explain what they learned we were reminded that there are some password truths we take for granted. Here are five important points about passwords they made that everyone needs to know. 1. No one changes their passwords when there's a hack. It's constant headline, "Passwords breached. Change all your passwords!" Not only do we have to put up with our trust being breached, as Breakthrough Radio's Michele Price pointed out, we have to take the time to change all our passwords ourselves. If you're a regular reader of Safe and Savvy, you know that experts aren't being sincere when they tell you to change all your passwords. “The dirty little secret of security experts is that when there’s a data breach and they recommend to ‘change all your passwords,’ even they don’t follow their own advice, because they don’t need to,” our Security Advisor Sean Sullivan told us. The only reason you'd need to change all your passwords is if you made a few basic mistakes. 2. Our password choices can make us vulnerable. "You should have diversified your usernames and passwords in the first place," Harri Hiljander, our Product Director or Personal Identity Protection, told LeadersWest's Jim Dougherty. If you reuse passwords, every hack or breach is exponentially worse. But still people reuse passwords over and over for a pretty obvious reason. 3. It's too hard to come up with and remember strong, unique passwords for all our important accounts. Our bloggers presented the suggestions for generating strong unique passwords our Labs offered -- and to be honest, the advice can overwhelming. But if you're going to come up something that protects your financial details, it's essential. That's why the bloggers liked KEY's ability to generate strong passwords for them. "I think this is the best feature of all," World of My Imagination's Nicole Michelle wrote. Forget all the rules. Now you don't have to worry if your password is going to end up on a list of ones you should never use. 4. Password security is especially important to people who work online -- and who doesn't? If you spend your time building up an online publication your readers trust, the integrity of your site is priceless, as we learned from WhyNotMom.com. Sean advised our bloggers to sure that their WordPress -- or any blogging platform -- password isn't being reused anywhere else. In addition to the three things everyone needs to do -- back up everything, patch all your software and use updated security software -- he also advised them to make sure they keep a watchful eye on all their blog plug-ins. Keep them updates AND keep an eye out for plug-ins that are no longer being updated. Get rid of those. 5. You should have at least one email account you don't share with anyone. Identity management gets harder and harder as our usernames become more public. Everyone gets by now -- we hope -- that you should never reuse pairings of logins and passwords for your crucial accounts. But there are extra steps you can take, as our bloggers learned from our KEY experts. "Create a new email address for online accounts, don’t share it with ANYONE." Chelsea from Me and My Handful wrote about our Labs' advice to keep your login names secret. "So smart, and yet, we don’t do it." But all this knowledge is useless if you don't have a system to keep your passwords secure. Set up a system then pick a password manager -- we suggest you try KEY for free, of course --and stick with it. Cheers, Jason [Image via kris krüg via Flickr ]
The whole world is waking up to a new reality. Privacy used to be a fundamental human right that we took for granted. Technically it still is, but the global Internet has made it easy to violate this right. Too easy as there is proof that many states and companies violate it extensively and blatantly. There’s many motives for this. Technical feasibility, commercial benefits, diplomatic and political advantages, fear of terrorism and last but not least, peoples’ lack of awareness. The incentives to violate our privacy will not go away, but peoples’ awareness is certainly increasing. This is obvious now in the post-Snowden era. Customers start to ask how their service- and software providers guard their privacy, and make purchase decisions based on that. Protecting our customers’ data has been F-Secure’s mission for more than 25 years. That’s why we are very worried about the current situation, and eager to raise awareness about it. But raising awareness is not enough. We also need to get our act together and make sure our own offering isn’t violating your privacy. It’s by the way a surprisingly complex task that affect all functions in a company. That’s why we have published nine privacy principles that guide our work to guard your privacy. Let’s walk through the first 3 in this post. Stay tuned, the rest will be covered soon. WE RESPECT YOUR RIGHT TO PRIVACY This is really the fundament of it all. Our goal is to provide you with products and services that create some value for you, but this is never done by violating your privacy. Quite the opposite, guarding your privacy is a central goal in many products. Many companies market “free” services, where the customer in reality pay by letting the provider utilize personal information. F-Secure is NOT one of them. YOUR CONTENT BELONGS TO YOU We handle your data in many ways, either by apps on your own device or uploaded to our services. But no matter how we get in touch with it, it is still YOUR data. We have no right to utilize it for our own purposes and we do not reserve such rights in legal-jargon user agreements that nobody reads or understands. YOU DECIDE HOW MUCH YOU SHARE WITH US Your data, or data about you, may become accessible to us in several ways. You may upload it to our servers yourself. In this case it’s obvious that you are in full control of what data you transfer. Our products may also collect data to improve the service we offer, but you can opt out from much of this. Only a small part of the collected data is mandatory and not controlled by you. In short, we apply a strict minimalistic policy to automatic data uploads. We only fetch data if it’s needed to improve the service, we anonymize data when possible and we let you opt out if the data isn’t absolutely necessary. That’s 3 fundamental privacy principles in our set of totally nine. Stay tuned, we will present the rest shortly. Safe surfing, Micke
The recent statements from FBI director James Comey is yet another example of the authorities’ opportunistic approach to surveillance. He dislikes the fact that mobile operating systems from Google and Apple now come with strong encryption for data stored on the device. This security feature is naturally essential when you lose your device or if you are a potential espionage target. But the authorities do not like it as it makes investigations harder. What he said was basically that there should be a method for authorities to access data in mobile devices with a proper warrant. This would be needed to effectively fight crime. Going on to list some hated crime types, murder, child abuse, terrorism and so on. And yes, this might at first sound OK. Until you start thinking about it. Let’s translate Comey’s statement into ordinary non-obfuscated English. This is what he really said: “I, James Comey, director of FBI, want every person world-wide to carry a tracking device at all times. This device shall collect the owner’s electronic communications and be able to open cloud services where data is stored. The content of these tracking devices shall on request be made available to the US authorities. We don’t care if this weakens your security, and you shouldn’t care because our goals are more important than your privacy.” Yes, that’s what we are talking about here. The “tracking devices” are of course our mobile phones and other digital gadgets. Our digital lives are already accurate mirrors of our actual lives. Our gadgets do not only contain actual data, they are also a gate to the cloud services because they store passwords. Granting FBI access to mobile devices does not only reveal data on the device. It also opens up all the user’s cloud services, regardless of if they are within US jurisdiction or not. In short. Comey want to put a black box in the pocket of every citizen world-wide. Black boxes that record flight data and communications are justified in cockpits, not in ordinary peoples’ private lives. But wait. What if they really could solve crimes this way? Yes, there would probably be a handful of cases where data gathered this way is crucial. At least enough to make fancy PR and publically show how important it is for the authorities to have access to private data. But even proposing weakening the security of commonly and globally used operating systems is a sign of gross negligence against peoples’ right to security and privacy. The risk is magnitudes bigger than the upside. Comey was diffuse when talking about examples of cases solved using device data. But the history is full of cases solved *without* data from smart devices. Well, just a decade ago we didn’t even have this kind of tracking devices. And the police did succeed in catching murderers and other criminals despite that. You can also today select to not use a smartphone, and thus drop the FBI-tracker. That is your right and you do not break any laws by doing so. Many security-aware criminals are probably operating this way, and many more would if Comey gets what he wants. So it’s very obvious that the FBI must have capability to investigate crime even without turning every phone into a black box. Comey’s proposal is just purely opportunistic, he wants this data because it exists. Not because he really needs it. Safe surfing, Micke