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:
When news broke that Facebook was at least temporarily using users physical location to suggest real world connections, a strategy that has been employed by the NSA, the backlash was sharp. It wasn't difficult to imagine scenarios when identities could be inadvertently and uncomfortably revealed through group therapy, 12-step meetings or secretive political movements. The world's most popular social network quickly said it would not continue what it called a small-scale test nor roll the feature on a wider scale in the future. But Facebook is still using your location data for other purposes, Fusion's Kashmir Hill reports: We do know that Facebook is using smartphone location for other things, such as tracking which stores you go to and geotargeting you with ads, but the social network now says it’s not using smartphone location to identify people you’ve been physically proximate to. Hill notes that using location to match users up, thus acting as a tool to reveal the identity of nearby strangers, might violate Facebook's agreement with the Federal Trade Commission . So you should expect that your location -- like everything you do on Facebook -- is being used to turn you into a better product for its advertisers. That's the cost of using a "free" site but you can limit your exposure a bit by turning off location services for Facebook on your phone. Here's very simple instructions for turning off location services on your Facebook and Facebook Messenger apps on your Android of iOS device. Do you mind if Facebook uses your location to suggest new friends? Let us know in the comments. [Image by Lwp Kommunikáció | Flickr]
If you read our post about why you should travel with glitter nail polish, you know we love unconventional OPSEC advice that keep strangers out of your business. That's why this quote in a recent GQ profile of Kim Kardashian, which was first pointed out by LA Times editor Amy Fiscus, stood out: "She's frighteningly organized: She tells me that before bed she deletes every single text message and e-mail from her phone, unless it's something she still needs to respond to." Is this good OPSEC? We asked one of our resident experts Camillo Särs and he was intrigued. "Yes – the practice of deleting any unnecessary copies as soon as possible is definitely good OPSEC," he explained. "Clearly that is not the actual intent here, but effective, nevertheless!" So be like the woman who broke the internet, and consider getting rid of anything you don't need to keep as soon as possible. And if you're about to go on vacation, here's a quick OPSEC tip for your email out-of-office message, which could be helping criminals trying to phish you. Is there an OPSEC tip you picked up that you've picked up and feel like sharing? Let us know in the comments.
In Finland, there is this thing called juhannus. A few years ago, our former colleague Hetta described it like this: Well, Midsummer – or juhannus – as it is called in Finnish, is one of the most important public holidays in our calendar. It is celebrated, as you probably guessed, close to the dates of the Summer Solstice, when day is at its longest in the northern hemisphere. Finland being so far up north, the sun doesn’t set on juhannus at all. Considering that in the winter we get the never ending night, it’s no surprise we celebrate the sun not setting. So what do Finns do to celebrate juhannus? I already told you we flock to our summer cottages, but what then? We decorate the cottage with birch branches to celebrate the summer, we stock up on new potatoes which are just now in season and strawberries as well. We fire up the barbecue and eat grilled sausages to our hearts content. We burn bonfires that rival with the unsetting sun. And we get drunk. If that isn't vivid enough, this video may help: [protected-iframe id="f18649f0b62adf8eb1ec638fa5066050-10874323-9129869" info="https://www.facebook.com/plugins/video.php?href=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.facebook.com%2Fsuomifinland100%2Fvideos%2F1278272918868972%2F&show_text=0&width=560" width="560" height="315" frameborder="0" style="border: none; overflow: hidden;" scrolling="no"] And because the celebration is just so... celebratory, it's easy to lose your phone. So here are a few ways to prepare yourself for a party that lasts all night. 1. Don't use 5683 as your passcode. That spells love and it's also one of the first passcodes anyone trying to crack into your phone will try. So use something much more creative -- and use a 6-digit code if you can on your iPhone. You can also encrypt your Android. 2. Write down your IMEI number. If you lose your phone, you're going to need this so make sure you have it written down somewhere safe. 3. Back your content up. This makes your life a lot easier if your party goes too well and it's pretty simple on any iOS device. Just make sure you're using a strong, unique password for your iCloud account. Unfortunately on an Android phone, you'll have to use a third-party app. 4. Maybe just leave it home. Enjoy being with your friends and assume that they'll get the pictures you need to refresh your memory. And while you're out you can give your phone a quick internal "clean" with our free Boost app. [Image by Janne Hellsten | Flickr]