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:
Would you give up your firstborn child or favorite pet to use free WiFi? Of course not. Sounds crazy, right? But in an independent investigation conducted on behalf of F-Secure, several people agreed to do just that – just to be able to instantly, freely connect to the Internet while on the go. For the experiment, we asked Finn Steglich of the German penetration testing company, SySS, to build a WiFi hotspot, take it out on the streets of London, and set it up and wait for folks to connect. The purpose? To find out how readily people would connect to an unknown WiFi hotspot. (You can view our complete report, see the video and listen to the podcast below.) Thing is, public hotspots are insecure. Public WiFi simply wasn’t built with 21st century security demands in mind. When you use public WiFi without any added security measures, you leak data about yourself from your device. We know it, but we wanted to find out in general how well people out on the street know, whether or not they take precautions, and what kind of data they would actually leak. We also enlisted the help of freelance journalist Peter Warren of the UK’s Cyber Security Research Institute, who came along to document it all. Accompanying the two was Sean Sullivan, F-Secure’s Security Advisor. [protected-iframe id="4904e81e9615a16d107096f242273fee-10874323-40632396" info="//www.youtube-nocookie.com/embed/OXzDyL3gaZo" width="640" height="360" frameborder="0" allowfullscreen=""] Leaking personal information What we found was that people readily and happily connected, unaware their Internet activity was being spied on by the team. In just a half-hour period, 250 devices connected to the hotspot. Most of these were probably automatic connections, without their owner even realizing it. 33 people actively sent Internet traffic, doing web searches, sending email, etc. The team collected 32 MB of traffic – which was promptly destroyed in the interest of consumer privacy. The researchers were a bit surprised when they found that they could actually read the text of emails sent over a POP3 network, along with the addresses of the sender and recipient, and even the password of the sender. Encryption, anyone? If you aren’t already using it, you should be! The Herod clause For part of the experiment, the guys enabled a terms and conditions (T&C) page that people needed to agree to before being able to use the hotspot. One of the terms stipulated that the user must give up their firstborn child or most beloved pet in exchange for WiFi use. In the short time the T&C page was active, six people agreed to the outlandish clause. Of course, this simply illustrates the lack of attention people pay to such pages. Terms and conditions are usually longer than most people want to take time to read, and often they’re difficult to understand. We, of course, won’t enforce the clause and make people follow through with surrendering their loved ones – but this should give us all pause: What are we really signing up for when we check the “agree” box at the end of a long list of T&C’s we don’t read? There's a need for more clarity and transparency about what's actually being collected or required of the user. The problem So what’s really the issue here? What’s going to happen to your data, anyway? The problem is there are plenty of criminals who love to get their hands on WiFi traffic to collect usernames, passwords, etc. It’s easy and cheap enough for them to set up their own hotspot somewhere (the whole hotspot setup only cost SySS about 200 euros), give it a credible-looking name, and just let the data flow in. And even if a hotspot is provided by a legitimate business or organization, criminals can still use “sniffing” tools to spy on others’ Internet traffic. So be warned: Public WiFi is NOT secure or safe. But we’re not saying don’t use it, we’re saying don’t use it without proper security. A good VPN will provide encryption so even if someone tries, they can’t tap into your data. The Solution F-Secure Freedome is our super cool, super simple wi-fi security product, or VPN. Freedome creates a secure, encrypted connection from your device and protects you from snoops and spies, wherever you go and whatever WiFi you use. (Bonus: It also includes tracking protection from Internet marketers, browsing protection to block malicious sites and apps, and lets you choose your own virtual location so you can view your favorite web content even when you’re abroad.) Still don’t believe that public WiFi poses risks? Take a closer look next time you’re faced with a terms and conditions page for public WiFi hotspot. “A good number of open wi-fi providers take the time to tell you in their T&C that there are inherent risks with wireless communications and suggest using a VPN,” Sullivan says. “So if you don't take it from me, take it from them.” Check out the full report here (PDF): Tainted Love - How Wi-Fi Betrays Us Listen to the podcast, featuring interviews with Victor Hayes, the "Father of WiFi," our Sean Sullivan and others: [audio mp3="http://fsecureconsumer.files.wordpress.com/2014/09/wifi_experiment_podcast.mp3"][/audio] Disclaimer: During the course of this experiment, no user was compromised at any point nor user data exposed in a way that it could have been subject to misuse. We have not logged any user information, and during the experiment a lawyer supervised all our activities to avoid breaching any laws. Video by Magneto Films
Yet another high-profile vulnerability in the headlines, Shellshock. This one could be a big issue. The crap could really hit the fan big time if someone creates a worm that infects servers, and that is possible. But the situation seems to be brighter for us ordinary users. The affected component is the Unix/Linux command shell Bash, which is only used by nerdy admins. It is present in Macs as well, but they seem to be unaffected. Linux-based Android does not use Bash and Windows is a totally different world. So we ordinary users can relax and forget about this one. We are not affected. Right? WRONG! Where is your cloud content stored? What kind of software is used to protect your login and password, credit card number, your mail correspondence, your social media updates and all other personal info you store in web-based systems? Exactly. A significant part of that may be on systems that are vulnerable to Shellshock, and that makes you vulnerable. The best protection against vulnerabilities on your own devices is to make sure the automatic update services are enabled and working. That is like outsourcing the worries to professionals, they will create and distribute fixes when vulnerabilities are found. But what about the servers? You have no way to affect how they are managed, and you don’t even know if the services you use are affected. Is there anything you can do? Yes, but only indirectly. This issue is an excellent reminder of some very basic security principles. We have repeated them over and over, but they deserve to be repeated once again now. You can’t control how your web service providers manage their servers, but you can choose which providers you trust. Prefer services that are managed professionally. Remember that you always can, and should, demand more from services you pay for. Never reuse your password on different services. This will not prevent intrusions, but it will limit the damage when someone breaks into the system. You may still be hurt by a Shellshock-based intrusion even if you do this, but the risk should be small and the damage limited. Anyway, you know you have done your part, and its bad luck if an incident hurts you despite that. Safe surfing, Micke PS. The best way to evaluate a service provider’s security practices is to see how they deal with security incidents. It tells a lot about their attitude, which is crucial in all security work. An incident is bad, but a swift, accurate and open response is very good. Addition on September 30th. Contrary to what's stated above, Mac computers seem to be affected and Apple has released a patch. It's of course important to keep your device patched, but this does not really affect the main point of this article. Your cloud content is valuable and part of that may be on vulnerable servers.
Unlike Team Fortress 2 or Doom, two of the most popular PC games of all time, GameOver ZeuS is not a game you can buy online or would willingly download on to your computer. What is GameOver ZeuS? While we’ve talked about banking Trojans before, none have been as detrimental to users as the GameOver ZeuS or GOZ Trojan, which initially began infecting users in 2012. Gameover ZeuS is designed to capture banking credentials from infected computers, and make wire transfers to criminal accounts overseas. It was allegedly authored by Russian hacker Evgeniy Bogachev, who then implanted it on computers all around the world; building a network of infected machines - or bots - that his crime syndicate could control from anywhere. It’s predominately spread through spam e-mail or phishing messages. So far, it’s been estimated to scam people out of hundreds of millions of dollars and it’s only getting worse. It doesn’t stop there; Gameover ZeuS can also be modified by hackers to load different kinds of Trojans on to it. One such Trojan is a ransomware called CryptoLocker, which is a devastating malware that locks a user’s most precious files by encrypting all the files until he or she pays the hacker a ransom. In June 2014, the FBI, Europol, and the UK’s National Crime Agency announced they had been working closely with various security firms and academic researchers around the world and took action under a program dubbed “Operation Trovar.” This initiative temporarily disrupted the system that was spreading the Trojan and infecting computers, allowing a temporary pause in additional computers from being infected. However, computers that were already infected remained at risk, as they were still compromised. What’s next? The disruption of the GameOver ZeuS botnet was a great success in many ways, but it’s not over. Our security advisor, Sean Sullivan, worries that this temporary disruption was actually more dangerous than completely taking it down. “Without arresting Bogachev, Gameover ZeuS is still a huge threat and likely to evolve to become more dangerous. The hackers can just as easily program a future version of the Trojan to initiate a “self-destruct” order (like destroy every file on a computer) if the ransom isn’t paid, or if authorities try to intervene.” What can we do to protect our digital freedom? Beware of malicious spam and phishing attempts — don’t open any attachments within emails unless you are specifically expecting something. Check email attachments carefully, and make sure you don’t open any files that automatically launch, which frequently end in .exe Have an Internet security solution in place and keep it up to date Keep your Windows operating system and your Internet browser plugins updated Back up all of your personal files regularly Also, check your machines to be sure you do not carry the Gameover ZeuS Trojan. For more information on how this powerful Trojan works and how it is spread, check out this this video. [protected-iframe id="888198d18fd45eae52e6400a39fb4437-10874323-9129869" info="//www.youtube-nocookie.com/v/JhiPDbTIsqw?hl=en_US&version=3&rel=0" width="640" height="360"] Have more questions? Ask us here on the blog.