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:
At Re:publica 2015, our Chief Research Officer Mikko Hypponen told the main stage crowd that the world's top scientists are now focused on the delivery of ads. "I think this is sad," he said. [youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pbF0sVdOjRw?rel=0&start=762&end=&autoplay=0] To give the audience a sense of how much Twitter knows about its users, he showed them the remarkable targeting the microblogging service offers its advertisers. If you use the site, you may be served promoted tweets based on the following: 1. What breakfast cereal you eat. 2. The alcohol you drink. 3. Your income. 4. If you suffer from allergies. 5. If you're expecting a child. And that's just the beginning. You can be targeted based not only on your recent device purchases but things you may be in the market for like, say, a new house or a new car. You can see all the targeting offered by logging into your Twitter, going to the top right corner of the interface, clicking on your icon and selecting "Twitter Ads". Can Twitter learn all this just based on your tweets and which accounts follow? No, Mikko said. "They buy this information from real world shops, from credit card companies, and from frequent buyer clubs." Twitter then connects this information to you based on... your phone number. And you've agreed to have this happen to you because you read and memorized the nearly 7,000 words in its Terms and Conditions. Because everyone reads the terms and conditions. Full disclosure: We do occasionally promote tweets on Twitter to promote or digital freedom message and tools like Freedome that block ad trackers. It's an effective tool and we find the irony rich. Part of our mission is to make it clear that there's no such thing as "free" on the internet. If you aren't paying a price, you are the product. Aral Balkan compares social networks to a creepy uncle" that pays the bills by listening to as many of your conversations as they can then selling what they've heard to its actual customers. And with the world's top minds dedicated to monetizing your attention, we just think you should be as aware of advertisers as they are as of you. Most of the top URLs in the world are actually trackers that you never access directly. To get a sense of what advertisers learn every time you click check out our new Privacy Checker. Cheers, Jason
The Internet is first and foremost a communication medium. Every link that people click, every character they enter, and every video they watch involves an exchange of information. And it’s not just a two-way conversation between a person and their computer, or a person and someone they’re chatting with. There’s more people than listening in, and because computers use languages that people don’t necessarily understand, it’s logical to infer that many people may not be fully aware of what they’re actually saying. F-Secure launched a new Privacy Checker to help pull back the magic curtain that hides online tracking. A lot of online tracking is about employing passive data collection techniques – techniques that allow observers to monitor behavior without having any direct interaction with the people they're observing. Such passive data collection techniques are pervasive online, and websites are often designed to facilitate this kind of tracking. The prevalence of these technologies lends credence to the idea that control is becoming ubiquitous online, and represents a substantial threat to digital freedom. Do you ever read “top 10” articles or other types of lists on websites that require you to “turn pages” by clicking a button? Clicking those buttons lets online trackers know how far you go in the article before you stop reading (not something that can be done reliably when content is on a single page). That’s how passive data collection works. The Privacy Checker works by checking the information stored in web browsers, and then generates a report about what it’s learned. It can usually deduce where you’re located, what language you speak, whether or not you were directed to the checker from Google or another website, what device and operating system you’re using, and whether or not you allow your browser to use tracking cookies. If you think about this as a communicative event – an interaction in which information is exchanged – simply clicking a button has told the Privacy Checker all of this information. So if you were to breakdown the result from a check I ran as an interaction, you could say I told the Privacy Checker the following: “I am in Helsinki, Finland”. “I speak English”. “I use Google.fi to find things online”. “I use a mobile device with Android 4.4.2”. “I allow my browser to accept cookies”. The Privacy Checker responded by explaining what I told it when I pushed the “Check Now” button. The Privacy Checker also provided me with some information on how companies use the things I tell them to make money. The Privacy Checker is probably the only online conversation partner that you’ll ever have that provides you with this transparency. Many people don’t know or aren’t interested in constantly sharing this information, and many websites are designed to help their administrators make money from this data. And this is a key threat to online privacy: more and more technologies are being developed to capture, store, and analyze your data without your knowledge. This blog post emphasizes the significance of the threat by pointing out that huge investments are being made in companies and technologies that monetize your data. The author even refers to it as information about "pseudo-private" behavior – a label that really underscores how much value some of these companies place on privacy. The Privacy Checker sheds some light on this to help people understand what they’re really saying when they click around the web. It’s free to use and available on F-Secure’s new Digital Privacy website, which contains more information about online privacy and the fight for digital freedom. [ Image by geralt | Pixabay ]
F-Secure Labs reported this week on a new WhatsApp scam that’s successfully spammed over 22,000 people. Spam seems to be as old as the Internet itself, and is both a proven nuisance AND a lucrative source of revenue for spammers. Most people don’t see what goes on behind the scenes, but spammers often employ very sophisticated schemes that can expose web surfers to more than just ads for Viagara or other “magic beans”. Spam typically tries to drive Internet traffic by tricking people into clicking certain websites, where scammers can bombard unsuspecting web surfers with various types of advertising. Profit motives are what keep spammers working hard to circumvent spam blocks, white lists, and other protective measures that people use to try and fight back – and it can pay off. Numerous spammers have been indicted and suspected of generating hundreds of thousands of dollars in revenue from their spam campaigns, with one study projecting that spammers could generate in excess of 3.5 million dollars annually. While most spam circulates via e-mail, the popularity of services like WhatsApp is giving spammers new resources to exploit people, and new ways to make money. Here’s a few ways spammers and cyber criminals are using WhatsApp to make money off users: Following Malicious Links: One way that cyber criminals use WhatsApp to scam people is to trick them into following malicious links. For example, a recent scam sent SMS messages to WhatsApp users telling them to follow a link to update the app. But the message was not from WhatsApp, and the link didn’t provide them with any kind of update. It signed them up for an additional service, and added a hefty surcharge to victims' phone bills. Sending Premium Rate Messages: Premium rate SMS sending malware was recently determined by F-Secure Labs to be the fastest growing mobile malware threat, and WhatsApp gives cyber criminals a new way to engage in this malicious behavior. Basically the users receive a message that asks them to send a response – “I’m writing to you from WhatsApp, let me know here if you are getting my messages”, “Get in touch with me about the second job interview”, and various sexual themed messages have all been documented. Responding to these messages automatically redirects your message through a premium rate service. Spanish police claim that one gang they arrested made over 5 million euros using this scheme – leaving everyday mobile phone users to foot the bill. Manipulating Web Traffic: A lot of spam tries to direct web traffic to make money off advertising. As you might imagine, this means they have to get massive numbers of people to look at the ads they’re using for their scams. Scammers use WhatsApp to do this by using the app to spread malware or social engineer large numbers of people to visit a website under false pretenses. F-Secure Labs found that people were being directed to a website for information on where they could get a free tablet. In March there was a global spam campaign claiming people could test the new WhatsApp calling feature. Both cases were textbook scams, and instead of getting new tablets or services, the victims simply wasted their time spreading misleading spam messages and/or exposing themselves to ads. WhatsApp and other services are great for people, but like any new software, requires a bit of understanding to know how to use. Hopefully these points give WhatsApp users a heads up on how they can avoid spam and other digital threats, so they can enjoy using WhatsApp to chat with their friends. [ Image by Julian S. | Flickr ]