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:
The first day of September may go down in internet security history -- and not just because it's the day when F-Secure Labs announced that its blog, which was the first antivirus industry blog ever, has moved to a new home. It's also the day that Google's Chrome began blocking flash ads from immediately loading, with the goal of moving advertisers to develop their creative in HTML5. Google is joining Amazon, whose complete rejection of Flash ads also begins on September 1. "This is a very good move on Amazon’s part and hopefully other companies will follow suit sooner than later," F-Secure Security Advisor Sean Sullivan wrote in August when Amazon made its announcement. "Flash-based ads are now an all-too-common security risk. Everybody will be better off without them." Last month, Adobe issued its 12th update in 2015 for the software addressing security and stability concerns. An estimated 90 percent of rich media ads are delivered through Flash. Having the world's largest online retailer reject your ad format is a significant nudge away from the plugin. But it would be difficult to overstate the impact of Chrome actively encouraging developers to drop Flash. About 1 out of every 2 people, 51.74 percent, who access the internet through a desktop browser do it via Chrome, according to StatCounter. This makes it the world's most popular web interface by far. Facebook's Chief Security Officer has also recently called for the end of Flash and YouTube moved away from the format by default in January. “Newer technologies are available and becoming more popular anyway, so it would really be worth the effort to just speed up the adoption of newer, more secure technologies, and stop using Flash completely," F-Secure Senior Researcher Timo Hirvonen told our Business Insider blog. So what's keeping Flash alive? Massive adoption and advertisers. “Everyone in every agency’s creative department grew up using Adobe’s creative suite, so agencies still have deep benches of people who specialize in this,”Media Kitchen managing partner Josh Engroff told Digiday. “Moving away from it means new training and calibration.” And Flash does have some advantages over the format that seems fated to replace it. "HTML5 ads may be more beautiful, and are perceived to be more secure, but the files can be a lot larger than Flash," Business Insider's Laura O'Reilly wrote. In markets, stability can breed instability and it seems that our familiarity and reliance on Flash has resulted in unnecessary insecurity for our data. Has Flash hit its moment when its dominance rapidly evaporates? We can have hope. "I sincerely hope this is the end of Flash," Timo told us. Cheers, Sandra [Image by Sean MacEntee | Flickr]
Kaisu who is working for us is also studying tourism. Her paper on knowledge of and behavior related to information security amongst young travelers was released in May, and is very interesting reading. The world is getting smaller. We travel more and more, and now we can stay online even when travelling. Using IT-services in unknown environments does however introduce new security risks. Kaisu wanted to find out how aware young travelers are of those risks, and what they do to mitigate them. The study contains many interesting facts. Practically all, 95,7%, are carrying a smartphone when travelling. One third is carrying a laptop and one in four a tablet. The most commonly used apps and services are taking pictures, using social networks, communication apps and e-mail, which all are used by about 90% of the travelers. Surfing the web follows close behind at 72%. But I’m not going to repeat it all here. The full story is in the paper. What I find most interesting is however what the report doesn’t state. Everybody is carrying a smartphone and snapping pictures, using social media, surfing the web and communicating. Doesn’t sound too exotic, right? That’s what we do in our everyday life too, not just when travelling. The study does unfortunately not examine the participants’ behavior at home. But I dare to assume that it is quite similar. And I find that to be one of the most valuable findings. Traveling is no longer preventing us from using IT pretty much as we do in our everyday life. I remember when I was a kid long, long ago. This was even before invention of the cellphone. There used to be announcements on the radio in the summer: “Mr. and Mrs. Müller from Germany traveling by car in Lapland. Please contact your son Hans urgently.” Sounds really weird for us who have Messenger, WhatsApp, Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat and Skype installed on our smartphones. There was a time when travelling meant taking a break in your social life. Not anymore. Our social life is today to an increasing extent handled through electronic services. And those services goes with us when travelling, as Kaisu’s study shows. So you have access to the same messaging channels no matter where you are on this small planet. But they all require a data connection, and this is often the main challenge. There are basically two ways to get the data flowing when abroad. You can use data roaming through the cellphone’s ordinary data connection. But that is often too expensive to be feasible, so WiFi offers a good and cheap alternative. Hunting for free WiFi has probably taken the top place on the list of travelers’ concerns, leaving pickpockets and getting burnt in the sun behind. Another conclusion from Kaisu’s study is that travelers have overcome this obstacle, either with data roaming or WiFi. The high usage rates for common services is a clear indication of that. But how do they protect themselves when connecting to exotic networks? About 10% are using a VPN and about 20% say they avoid public WiFi. That leaves us with over 70% who are doing something else, or doing nothing. Some of them are using data roaming, but I’m afraid most of them just use whatever WiFi is available, either ignoring the risks or being totally unaware. That’s not too smart. Connecting to a malicious WiFi network can expose you to eavesdropping, malware attacks, phishing and a handful other nasty tricks. It’s amazing that only 10% of the respondents have found the simple and obvious solution, a VPN. It stands for Virtual Private Network and creates a protected “tunnel” for your data through the potentially harmful free networks. Sounds too nerdy? No, it’s really easy. Just check out Freedome. It’s the super-simple way to be among the smart 10%. Safe surfing, Micke PS. I recently let go of my old beloved Nokia Lumia. Why? Mainly because I couldn’t use Freedome on it, and I really want the freedom it gives me while abroad. Image by Moyan Brenn
It’s amazing how advertising can power huge companies. Google has over 57 000 employees and some 66 billion US dollars in revenue. And Facebook with 12 billion and 10 000 employees. These two giants are the best know providers of ad-financed services on the net. And modern advertising is targeted, which means that they must know what the users want to see. Which means that they must know you. Let’s take a closer look at Facebook. We have already written about their advertising preferences and I have been following my data for some time. Part of the data used to target ads is input by yourself, age, gender, hometown, movies you seen etc. But Facebook also analyzes what you do, both in Facebook and on other sites, to find out what you like. It’s obvious how the tracking works inside Facebook itself. Their servers just simply record what links you click. Tracking in the rest of the net is more sinister, it’s described in this earlier post. Your activity record is analyzed and you are assigned to classes of interest, called “Your Ad Preferences” by Facebook. Advertisers can then select classes they want to target, and the ad may be shown to you based on these classes. You can view and manage the list using a page that is fairly well hidden deep in Facebook’s menus. Let’s check your preferences in moment, but first some thoughts about this. Advertising may be annoying, but it is the engine that drives so many “free” services nowadays. So I’m not going to blame Facebook for being ad-financed. I’m not going to blame them for doing targeted ads either. That can in theory be a good thing, you see more relevant ads that potentially can be of value to you. But any targeted ad scheme must be based on data collection, and this is the tricky part. Can we trust Facebook et al. to handle these quite extensive personal profiles and not misuse them for other purposes? It’s also nice that Facebook is somewhat open about this and let you view “Your Ad Preferences” (Note. Not available in all countries.). But that name is really misleading. The name should be “Facebook’s Ad Preferences for You”. Yes, you can view and delete classes, but that gives you a false sense of control. Facebook keeps analyzing what you do and deleted classes will reappear shortly. I made a full clean-up a couple of months ago, but now I have no less than 210 classes of interest again! This is really amazing if you take into account that I block tracking outside of Facebook, so those activities are not contributing. And I have a principle of not clicking ads in any on-line media, including Facebook. And liking commercial pages in a very restrictive manner. But the thing is that Facebook has realized that people dislike ads. “Suggested posts” or “Sponsored posts” are in fact masqueraded ads and any interaction with them will record your interest in the classes they represent. I have to admit that I do click this kind of content regularly. And where did that suicide thing come from? No, I’m fine. I’m not going to jump off a bridge and I’m not worried about any of my dearests’ mental health. I have not interacted with any kind of Facebook content related to suicide. Except that I can’t know that for sure. Facebook tries to give an open and honest image of itself when presenting its Ad Preferences settings and the possibilities to manage them. But this rosy picture is not the full truth. The inner workings of Facebook advertising is in reality a very complex secret system. When you interact with something on Facebook, you have no way of knowing how it affects your profile. Something I have clicked was apparently associated with suicides even if I had no clue about it. Ok, time to take the Facebook personality test. Let’s see what kind of person they think you are. Follow these instructions: Go to Facebook and locate an ad, a “sponsored post” or a “suggested post”. These items should have a cross or a down-arrow in the upper right corner. Click it. Select “Why am I seeing this?” from the pop-up menu. This screen contains some interesting info but proceed to “Manage your ad preferences”. Review the list and come back here to tell us what you think of it. Delete the inappropriate classes. Deleting all may reduce the number of ads you see. So let’s see what people think about this test’s accuracy: [polldaddy poll=9023953] So using Facebook’s Ad Preferences as a personality test may be entertaining, but not very accurate after all. You should probably look elsewhere for a real test. The catch is that you can select what test to take, but not how others collect data about you. Someone else may rely on this test when evaluating you. You have actually granted Facebook the right to share this data with basically anyone. Remember this clause in the agreement that you read and approved before signing up? “We transfer information to vendors, service providers, and other partners who globally support our business, such as providing technical infrastructure services, analyzing how our Services are used, measuring the effectiveness of ads and services, providing customer service, facilitating payments, or conducting academic research and surveys.” You did read it before signing, didn’t you? Safe surfing, Micke Image: Screenshot from facebook.com