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:
This is the final blog post in a series of three where we cover our privacy principles. I have earlier covered the fundaments and why security is a requirement for privacy. But privacy is not only about guarding your data and keeping it protected. It’s also about how we act as a company. If you select us as your provider, you want to know that we are acting in a responsible way and support your privacy in a broader sense. WE KEEP OUR MESSAGING RELEVANT Messaging and marketing towards customers is always a tricky issue that divides opinions. Some are allergic to all kinds of marketing messaging. Others don’t mind and may even find part of it useful. We may have several reasons to contact our customers. Part of it is no doubt promoting our product and service portfolio (yes, marketing), part is necessary info related to the products you use. We also produce generic security and privacy information that we think is of interest, even if it doesn’t relate directly to our products. Our aim is to give you a messaging stream with an optimal signal to noise ratio. And you can fine-tune the stream by opting in or out to some content. WE ARE THE GOOD GUYS There are strong global forces that want to scarify privacy for economic and diplomatic gains. This means that privacy isn’t just a technical issue anymore, it’s a highly ethical and political issue as well. The time has come when we need to choose sides. F-Secure’s choice is clearly to speak out against the privacy-hostile development. It would not be right to just sell you tools guarding your privacy and at the same time be quiet about the threats. We do demand change, for example in the Digital Freedom Manifesto. Also check out @Mikko at TED, nobody says it better than him. TRANSPARENCY All this sounds fine, but do you believe us and will you trust us? It is so easy to write beautiful phrases, but you as a customer have very little tools to verify our claims. That’s why we need transparency. We want to be a forerunner and openly declare what data we collect, how we handle it and what principles we adhere to. That’s the best way to differentiate from those who just use privacy as a marketing message. These principles will help us provide solutions that protect your privacy. As you can see, that’s not a simple task and it requires commitment at all levels of the organization. Publishing these principles is just the tip of the iceberg, what really matters is how we do our ordinary daily work. We need to keep the principles in mind at all time when designing systems and processes, to ensure they never are violated. Maybe I’m a dreamer, but I would very much love to be a digital citizen in a society that fully implement principles like this. It seems like a futile wish at the moment, but we are at least doing what we can to strive for it. The society may be hostile towards your privacy, but we at F-Secure work hard to make the principles real at least in a small part of the digital world. Our own products. That’s a good start, now you have a choice. If you like these principles, you can improve your privacy by selecting F-Secure. Safe surfing, Micke
In his recent video interview with The New Yorker, Edward Snowden advised viewers to get rid of Dropbox, Facebook and Google, saying such services are dangerous and should be avoided. But what do consumers think? Are you and I ready to follow his advice and switch to more secure services? To find out what people really think, we consulted our recent global consumer survey* where we had asked people just those types of questions. Here's what we found: 53% of survey respondents said they’d be willing to switch from services like Google to other more private services to avoid search-based profiling. 56% of people said they have become more wary of US-based Internet services in the past year. 46% of people said they would be willing to pay to be sure that none of their personal data transits via the US. 70% said they are concerned about the potential of mass surveillance by intelligence agencies in countries through which their data may be passing. 68% of respondents said they try to protect their privacy at least some of the time through the use of private browsing or incognito mode or by encrypting their communications. 57% of people said they are not okay with companies using their profile data in exchange for getting a free service. Germany, Brazil and the Philippines showed some of the highest levels of concern about data privacy. For example, when asked whether they’ve changed some of their Internet habits in recent months due to increased concerns about data privacy, an average of 56% of people said they had: 45% in the UK, 47% in the US, and 49% in France, and going even higher to 60% in Germany and 67% in both Brazil and the Philippines. Are you ready to start using more private, secure services too? If so, F-Secure has some great options. Our online storage and sync service, younited, is fully encrypted for security and privacy from the ground up. F-Secure Freedome encrypts your connection wherever you are, even on public WiFi, and protects you from hackers and Internet trackers. And free F-Secure App Permissions lets you know which mobile apps you've installed are a threat to your privacy. *The F-Secure Consumer Values Study 2014 consisted of online interviews of 4,800 age, gender and income-representative respondents from six countries, 800 respondents per country: US, UK, France, Germany, Brazil and the Philippines. The study was designed together with Informed Intuitions. Data was collected by Toluna Analytics in July 2014. Image courtesy of greensefa, flickr.com
Whistleblowers have changed the world and there’s still a lot of hidden secrets that the public really should know about. High-profile leakers like Snowden, Manning and Assange are known globally, and are paying a high price for their courage. But only a few are dedicated enough to blow the whistle in public - most leakers want to carry on with their normal lives and remain anonymous. Snowden did no doubt show the way for others, and there are already several who have tried to leak and remain anonymous. That’s not easy and the stakes are high! Which is underlined by the recent news about the feds discovering one leaker. But is it even possible to leak anonymously in this word that in many ways is worse than Orwell’s fictive surveillance nightmare? Let’s list some advice for the case you would like to leak by phone to a journalist. I guess not many of you readers will ever be in a situation where you need this. But read on, this is highly interesting anyway and tells a lot about how our digital word works. Ok, let’s assume the worst case. The secrets you want to leak affects US national security, which means that your enemy is powerful and can use top surveillance against you. Let’s also assume it’s info you have authorized access to. And that you want to talk on the phone to a journalist. Here’s some basic rules and hints that may prevent you from ending up behind bars. First you need to assess how many persons have access to the data. They will all be on a list of suspects, together with you. The shorter the list, the bigger the risk for you. Your mobile phone is a tracking device. The cell phone network knows what base station you are connected to at any time. Other services can record and store even GPS-accurate position data. All this is accessible to the agents and you must make sure it doesn’t reveal you. Needless to say, your own phone does not participate in this project. You need to find out who you should leak to. Never do this research from your own computer because your search history can reveal you. It leaves traces both in your computer and in your user profile at Google (unless you know what you are doing and use privacy tools properly). Do this research from a public computer. Make sure you have never logged in to any personal account from this computer. You need a “burner phone” to do the leaking. This is a phone that can’t be connected to your identity in any way. Here’s some rules for how to use it: It is always switched off with the battery removed when not in use. Just using the power button does not cut power from all parts of the device. It is never switched on in or close to your home. The agents can easily find out what base station it was connected to and turning it on near home can make you more suspected than others. It is never switched on in or close to your vehicle. Base station records for the phone may correlate with traffic cameras storing your registration plate. This is especially important if you have a modern car with a built-in data connection for service monitoring etc. Never user the burner for any other contacts. Even a single call to your spouse creates a record that ties you to the phone. Needless to say, never store any other info in the phone than what you need for this project. You always leave your own phone at home when going out to use the burner phone. Otherwise the agents can see that your own phone “happen” to be in the same base station when the burner is used. Leave your own phone turned ON at home when you go out with the burner. Otherwise you create a recognizable pattern where your own phone turns off and the burner turns on, and vice versa, in a synchronized manner. Leave any other wireless devices at home. Tablets, wireless mobile payment devices, anything else with a radio transmitter. Using a voice changer is necessary especially if the list of suspects is short. Assume that your calls can be recorded and your own voice checked against the recording. Get the burner phone. Scout for a dealer with old-looking or insufficient security cameras located not too close to your home. Remember that the agents may locate the shop where the burner phone was sold, get the security camera recording and compare against the list of suspects. Even better, ask someone else to buy the phone for you. Choose a cheap non-smart prepaid phone with removable battery. Pay cash and make sure you don’t reveal your identity to the seller in any way. Safely destroy any receipts and other paperwork related to the purchase. Think about where to store physical items that can tie you to the leak. Such items are the burner phone and related documents or data media. This is especially important if the list of suspects is short. Storing such items at home, at your workplace or in your vehicle will reveal you if the agents perform a search. Try to find some other place that is safe and can’t be tied to you. Now you are ready to contact the journalist. Be very rigid with the rules for how to use the burner phone. There are also some additional rules for this situation: Dress discreetly to avoid sticking out in surveillance camera footage. Be far enough from home when making the call. Turn the burner on, make the call and turn it off again right away. Avoid public places with surveillance cameras when the burner is on. Do not use your credit card during this trip. Pay cash for everything. Any other personal payment instruments, like public transportation payment cards, is a big no-no as well. You have to assume that journalists dealing with leaks are being watched constantly. Assume that the hunt is on as soon as you have made the first contact. Try to wrap up the project as quickly as possible and minimize the number of times you turn on the burner phone. When you are done, dispose all items related to the leak in a secure way. The trash can of your own house is NOT secure. Dump the phone in the river or put it in a public trash sack far enough from home. The truly paranoid leaker will break the phone with gloves on. The outer shell can contain fingerprints or traces of your DNA and the electronics the traceable phone ID. It’s good to make sure they end up in different places. Huh! That’s a lot to remember. Imagine, all this just for maintaining privacy when making a phone call! But you really need to do it like this if the big boys are after you and you still want to continue as a free citizen. I hope you never need to go through all this, and also that you do it right if you have to. Disclaimer. This text is mainly intended as a demonstration of how intrusive the surveillance society is today. We provide no guarantee that this will be enough to keep you out of jail. If you really plan to become a whistle blower, research the topic thoroughly and get familiar with other sources as well (but remember what I wrote about researching from your own computer). Safe whistle blowing, Micke