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:
F-Secure is back from CES -- where the tech world comes together in Las Vegas to preview some of the latest innovations – some which might change our lives in the coming years, others never to be seen or heard again. Inside the over 200,000 square meter exhibit space, Drones flew, and made a fashion statement; hearing aids got smartphone apps; and 3-D printers printed chocolate. We made a stir of our own with Freedome. Our David Perry reminded the industry professionals that the mobile devices nearly all of them were carrying can do more than connect us. "I want you to stop and think about this," he told RCR Wireless News as he held his smartphone up on the event floor. "This has two cameras on it. It has two microphones. It has GPS. It has my email. It has near-field detectors that can tell not only where I am but who I'm sitting close to. This is a tremendous amount of data. Every place I browse on the internet. What apps I'm running. What credit cards I have. And this phone doesn't take any steps to hide my privacy." In this post-Snowden world, where professionals are suddenly aware of how much their "meta-data" can reveal about them. Privacy also played a big role in the discussion of one the hottest topics of 2015 -- the Internet of Things (IoT). The world where nearly everything that can be plugged in -- from washing machines to light bulbs to toasters -- will be connected to the internet is coming faster than most predicted. Samsung promised every device they make will connect to the net by the end of the decade. If you think your smartphone holds a lot of private data, how about your smarthome? "If people are worried about Facebook and Google storing your data today, wait until you see what is coming with #IoT in next 2-5 years," our Ed Montgomery tweeted during the event's keynote speeches, which included a talk from US Federal Trade Commission Chairwoman Edith Ramirez that tackled privacy issues on the IoT. Newly detected attacks on home routers suggest that the data being collected in our connected appliances could end up as vulnerable to snoops and hackers as our PCs. Some fear that these privacy risks may prevent people from adopting technologies that could eventually save us time, effort and energy. At F-Secure we recognize the promise that IoT and smart homes hold and we’re excited about the coming years. But we also understand the potential threats, risks, and dangers. We feel that our job is to enable our customers to fully enjoy the benefits of IoT and that is why we’re working on new innovations that will help customers to adopt IoT and smart home solutions in a safe and controlled way. It will be an exciting journey and we invite you to learn more about our future IoT solutions in the coming months. We at F-Secure’s IoT team would like to hear from you! Are you ready to jump on the IoT? What would your dream connected home look like? Or have you perhaps already set up your smart home? What are you worried about? How could your smart home turn into a nightmare? Read the rules and post your thoughts below for your chance to win one of our favorite things -- an iPad Air 2 16 GB Wi-Fi. [Image by One Tech News | via Flickr]
You're searching online for a baby gift for a friend's newborn, and then for a while you're followed by diaper ads on practically every site you visit. Ever notice something like that happening to you? Yes, the web can be an eerie place. Intelligence agencies and criminals aren’t the only people who may be tracking your online behavior - there’s a lot more to your browsing session than meets the eye. Take, for example, this F-Secure Labs study that found that of the 100 most popular URLs in the world, only 15 percent are actually accessed by real people. The other 85 percent are third-party sites that are accessed behind the scenes of your browsing session, by the sites you visit. And over half of these third-party sites are tracking-related. They are helping build up an online profile of you and your browsing habits. Why? So marketers can better target you with ads that meet your interests and preferences - or at least try to, in the case of the diaper ads. How does it work? When you visit a site with ads, you'll be tracked by the marketing company behind the ads on that site. And one marketing company may be working with a huge network of other websites. So whenever you visit another site that also has a relationship with that marketer, the marketer captures more and more data about you and your online behavior. All this data goes into an extensive profile that is being built up about you. If that sounds a little creepy, rest assured that you can regain control of your digital privacy. There’s an easy way to block advertisers from tracking you everywhere you go. Last year we launched F-Secure Freedome to stop tracking on your mobile device (to date, Freedome has already blocked over 900 million tracking attempts globally). And now there's good news - today we're unveiling Freedome for your Windows PC! Freedome for Windows has the same privacy features as the mobile versions, protecting you from trackers and hackers. It's got the same VPN technology to protect your browsing session from snoops while using public Wi-Fi. In addition, it also includes a new Private Search feature that offers tools so you can get your search engine results without the tracking. Since the Snowden revelations, we as consumers have become more and more aware that we may be revealing the most intimate details of our lives through our connected devices. According to a recent study by the Pew Research Center Internet Project, 91% of adults in the survey agree that consumers have lost control over how personal information is collected and used by companies. If you're concerned too, download a free 14-day trial of Freedome for your Windows PC. And let us know what you think! Banner image courtesy of Filip Goc, flickr.com
British Prime Minister David Cameron has announced that, should the Conservatives win the general election in May, they will ban forms of communications which can’t be accessed by law enforcement if they have a warrant. It appears that messaging apps which use encryption will be banned in the UK. There are a number of reasons why this idea is a flawed knee-jerk reaction to the tragedies which happened in Paris. Here, F-Secure looks into them… Il n’est pas Charlie Each terror attack and paedophile ring which is busted gives the Government an opportunity to introduce laws which curtail the British people’s freedom and privacy. This is not the sentiment which has been shared across the world in the past two weeks, as people stood together against the massacre at Charlie Hebdo’s offices in Paris. Without civil liberties, Charlie Hebdo would not be allowed to exist. Self-censorship would ensue Knowing that your communications could be read by the Government would lead to self-censorship, possibly unconsciously. This could gravely affect activist groups and NGOs whose purpose it is to hold the Government to account. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights Article 12 states: No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honour and reputation. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks. If that wasn’t enough, mass surveillance also contravenes Article 8 (the right to respect for private and family life) and Article 10 (the right to freedom of expression) of the European Convention on Human Rights. The European Court of Human Rights has repeatedly stated that surveillance, if conducted without adequate judicial oversight and with no effective safeguards against abuse, will never be compatible with the European Convention. Ultimately, international law does not support Cameron’s intentions. Who will regulate open source encryption services? It is one thing to demand a large company, such as Facebook, abides by the law, but who will they approach for open source standards which have no single owner, such as OpenPGP? How do you regulate peer-to-peer communications app such as FireChat? What about mesh networks? This technology has not been widely adopted yet, but it has been available for some time and is bound to gain users if Cameron’s plans go ahead. Already used in Barcelona, Greece and Baghdad, mesh networks wirelessly connect computers and mobile devices to each other without the need for a service provider (such as an ISP). With this direct form of communication, there is no one to serve a warrant to. It can’t be monitored It is still unclear how Cameron expects to implement a ban. How will he stop people downloading software from outside Britain? Will resources (which could be spent on, say, targeted surveillance of people on the Government’s watch lists) then be spent on policing innocent people using encrypted communications? The British economy would suffer Start-ups wanting or needing to use end-to-end encryption are likely to avoid Britain as a base, taking their taxes and jobs with them. The Government would suffer The Government uses encryption for communications too. Will it be one rule for them and a different one for businesses and the public? It would wipe Britain off the technology map Take any number of services which could be affected by this law – WhatsApp and iMessage probably being the most widely used. These are not British companies bound by British laws. As such, are they likely to re-write their privacy source code or will they simply pull out of the market? When a new technology is launched, Britain is usually one of the test-beds before global roll-outs. Making Britain unviable for such programmes would see it fall behind its western competitors, bringing all the economic woes attached to it. So much for Cameron’s ‘Digital Britain’. It puts Britain in bad company Cameron is not the first to try this. He would be following Russia, Syria and Iran. All of whom have struggled to implement it. A warrant from the Home Secretary won’t help with end-to-end encryption It appears that Cameron is unaware that, with end-to-end encryption, the users hold the encryption keys, not the service provider. Turning up at, for example, the WhatsApp offices with a warrant for access to a specific user’s communications would be pointless. WhatsApp don’t hold the encryption keys, so wouldn’t be able to provide the unencrypted data. Did Cameron really mean what he said? The Prime Minister is not a technology expert, neither is his speech writer. Did this cause confusion? It is possible that Cameron’s intent is to make anonymity-enabling encryption abnormal, so that those using it are suspicious? It gives the authorities a tip on who to be watching. If we all use encrypted communications, they don’t have this advantage, so they would prefer it remained in fringe technology. Will it even happen? The plan has been called everything from ‘crazy’ to ‘cloud cuckoo land’ by security experts who understand the complexity of what Cameron intends. There is every chance that a ban on encrypted communications will not happen. However, the Government has shown its intentions. Not content with the mass surveillance being conducted by GCHQ (with no judicial oversight), they have also introduced the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) and the Communications Data Bill. The message is clear, the British Government wants to unilaterally invade the British people’s privacy. Britain as a surveillance state is becoming a reality.