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:
No, you are almost certainly wrong if you tried to guess. A recent study shows that products from Apple actually are at the top when counting vulnerabilities, and that means at the bottom security-wise. Just counting vulnerabilities is not a very scientific way to measure security, and there is a debate over how to interpret the figures. But this is anyway a welcome eye-opener that helps kill old myths. Apple did for a long time stubbornly deny security problems and their marketing succeeded in building an image of security. Meanwhile Windows was the biggest and most malware-targeted system. Microsoft rolled up the sleeves and fought at the frontline against viruses and vulnerabilities. Their reputation suffered but Microsoft gradually improved in security and built an efficient process for patching security holes. Microsoft had what is most important in security, the right attitude. Apple didn’t and the recent vulnerability study shows the result. Here’s four points for people who want to select a secure operating system. Forget reputation when thinking security. Windows used to be bad and nobody really cared to attack Apple’s computers before they became popular. The old belief that Windows is unsafe and Apple is safe is just a myth nowadays. There is malware on almost all commonly used platforms. Windows Phone is the only exception with practically zero risk. Windows and Android are the most common systems and malware authors are targeting them most. So the need for an anti-malware product is naturally bigger on these systems. But the so called antivirus products of today are actually broad security suites. They protect against spam and harmful web sites too, just to mention some examples. So changes are that you want a security product anyway even if your system isn’t one of the main malware targets. So which system is most secure? It’s the one that is patched regularly. All the major systems, Windows, OS X and Linux have sufficient security for a normal private user. But they will also all become unsafe if the security updates are neglected. So security is not really a selection criteria for ordinary people. Mobile devices, phones and tablets, generally have a more modern systems architecture and a safer software distribution process. Do you have to use a desktop or laptop, or can you switch to a tablet? Dumping the big old-school devices is a way to improve security. Could it work for you? So all this really boils down to the fact that you can select any operating system you like and still be reasonable safe. There are some differences though, but it is more about old-school versus new-school devices. Not about Apple versus Microsoft versus Linux. Also remember that your own behavior affects security more than your choice of device, and that you never are 100% safe no matter what you do. Safe surfing, Micke Added February 27th. Yes, this controversy study has indeed stirred a heated debate, which isn’t surprising at all. Here’s an article defending Apple. It has flaws and represent a very limited view on security, but one of its important points still stands. If someone still thinks Apple is immortal and invincible, it’s time to wake up. And naturally that this whole debate is totally meaningless for ordinary users. Just keep patching what you have and you will be fine. :) Thanks to Jussi (and others) for feedback.
The newest leak from Edward Snowden may be coming at a terrible time for the Obama White House but it's not particularly shocking news to security experts. The Intercept's report about the "Great SIM Heist" reveals American and British spies stole the keys that are "used to protect the privacy of cellphone communications across the globe" from Gemalto, the world's largest manufacturer of SIM cards. It goes on to report that "With these stolen encryption keys, intelligence agencies can monitor mobile communications without seeking or receiving approval from telecom companies and foreign governments," which sidesteps the needs for legal warrants that should be the foundation of ethical law enforcement. While this is certainly troubling and speaks to the agencies wanton regard for privacy and some amateurish procedures being used to transport keys, it likely won't alter the security landscape much. "The best summary is that an already unreliable communication method became even more unreliable," F-Secure Labs Senior Researcher Jarno Niemela, the holder of 20 security-related patents, explained. "Nobody in their right minds would assume GSM [Global System for Mobile Communications --the digital cellular network used by mobile phones] to be private in the first place," he said. "Phone networks have never been really designed with privacy in mind." Mobile operators are much more concerned with being able to prevent their customers from avoiding billing. While a scope of such a breach does seem huge, Jarno points we're not sure how many of the billions of cards manufactured by Gemalto may be affected. Keys sent to and from operators via without encryption in email or via FTP servers that were not properly secured are almost certainly compromised. But according to The Intercept, GCHQ also penetrated “authentication servers,” which allow it to "decrypt data and voice communications between a targeted individual’s phone and his or her telecom provider’s network" regardless who made the cards. With the cracked keys, users' calls would be vulnerable but likely only in a limited manner. "I am told that these keys only expose the encryption and authentication between the mobile device and the local cell tower," F-Secure Security Advisor David Perry explained. "This means that the NSA or (whoever else) would have to be locally located within radio range of your phone." So could the NSA or GCHQ be listening to your calls without a warrant? Maybe. Here's what you can do about it. Add a layer of encryption of your own to any device you use to communicate. A VPN like our Freedome will protect your data traffic. This would not, however, protect your voice calls. "Maybe it’s time to stop making 'traditional' mobile phones calls," F-Secure Labs Senior Researcher Timo Hirvonen suggests. "Install Freedome, and start making your calls with apps like Signal." [Image by Julian Carvajal | Flickr]
What smells so good? Could it be history? On Tuesday, F-Secure's corporate security team traveled to Dresden to pick up its fourth straight Best Protection award from AV-Test.org. We are now the only vendor in the history of the award to win the honor four years in a row. “Since 2011, F-Secure's security product has been a guarantee of high protection in corporate environments,” says Andreas Marx, CEO of AV-TEST. That's four years straight of the industry's best protection in a solution that provides the technology that's the basis for all of our security solutions. Success like this doesn't just mean we're good once in a while. It means we're the best every day, as the award goes to the solution that provides the most consistent protection throughout the year. We blocked 955 out of 958 real-world threats -- a 99.67 percent blocking rate -- and 112,059 out of 112,090 wide-spread malware with an astounding 99.97 percent blocking rate. That means we're about 2.67 - 2.97 percent above the industry standard. All this means if you don't use F-Secure, you could be exposing your business to thousands of more possible infections every month. You can compare these results to our competitors here. How do we do it? It's kind of like building the perfect sandwich. F-Secure Client Security layers antivirus on top of firewall on top of antispyware on top of rootkit scanning. We slather on the browsing protection to block dangerous websites. But it's not enough to block the threats we know about. That's where the secret sauce comes in. Our DeepGuard engine provides protection that reads criminals minds. As AV-Test's Andreas Marx said, “F-Secure is secure, innovative, and straightforward.” Excuse us. This is making me very hungry. We need to take a bite. Cheers, Sandra