You Are the Product: Why Free Services Don’t Keep You Free

If you spend enough time online, you will find variations of the quote “If you aren’t paying for the product, then you are the product.” While some may agree or disagree with this statement, it is worth your consideration. If a service is being offered to you for “free,” what is being expected in return? Are companies harvesting your information or usage habits to be mined for later? Are you being shown ads? Are they hoping for a future purchase?

There are thousands of free services you can find online, and some of them are better than others. Yet data collection and questionable practices by large online companies is an expansive conversation for a different article. For these purposes, I want to focus on the cybersecurity market in general. There are already plenty of free services trying to compete with standards such as Norton and McAfee, and it will be interesting to see how things progress over time.

And while there are free services that are worth your effort and investigation (some mobile apps will provide you with what you need, depending on your browsing habits), as a general rule, you need to be suspicious.

Here is what you should consider when looking at these services:


Critical Thinking: Where Does the Infrastructure Come From?

Cybersecurity as an industry is by no means cheap. As of 2015 the market size was around $75 billion. Reports say that by the year 2020 we can expect the market to be worth $170 billion. It requires excellent research and adaptive professionals who are paid handsomely for their work. The infrastructure required to process and adapt to an unerring wave of threats is massive. On top of that, most companies are looking to make a profit and hope to expand.

All of this begs one question: How does a free business model provide enough income to support all of this? It doesn’t, and that requires other methods of income. Those methods are possibly not in your best interest, and you need to critically think about the potential losses.


Scams: A Liberal Use of the Word

When you think of nothing on the internet as ever being free, scams are the first thing you think of. They are the most egregious problems when handling “free” goods and services, and they’re so ubiquitous to the internet that most internet users know how to avoid the obvious ones like they know how to breathe. They immediately distrust whatever they encounter, and they do so rightly.

If you run into a free “online security service,” do yourself a favor and look it up online before you even consider touching it. A great number of these services are just scams in disguise, hoping to get malware or ransomware onto your computer. If a service makes itself known to you via a popup or an ad, you can be assured that it’s a scam of some variety. If you are told you have a virus installed on your computer and that you need to install a certain program to remove it, they are trying to install ransomware on your computer.

While these scams aren’t real free services, I wanted to make a point of this in order to let you know to be suspicious of that word “free” online, if you aren’t already. Don’t let dishonesty get to you. Don’t let a false sense of urgency get to you. Make sure to do your research.


Data Collection

This may be cynical, but a cybersecurity company would be among the first organizations to be best able to collect your data and use it. Also, people will more easily trust a cybersecurity company with their information than most other types of businesses. Ideally, this would be the right call. Yet now you have to be sure to not hire a wolf to guard your chickens, or else you might find yourself getting some very interesting correspondence.

As a general rule, just make sure you know what you are doing before you give anyone permission to use your data. Just because something is a standard practice doesn’t mean that you should accept it. If you’re already using a free app, take a quick look at the permissions you give it. You might find yourself surprised.


Questionable Ads

Other free services use an ad supported model to make some money, having banner ads in apps or requiring you to watch a short clip before performing a scan (in rarer instances). This is a common revenue source online for content creators, and in many instances the only revenue source, when the content or service is free. Yet it’s not only problematic when you run into malvertising on a cybersecurity service, it’s absurd.

Do the ads potentially interfere with your usage of the application? Are the ads targeted towards you, and if so, what information is being used to allow for the targeting of those ads? Consider the personal cost to you when you consider getting a cybersecurity application driven mostly by ads. It might be something you’re perfectly alright with, but I must stress caution.


The Cost of an Inferior Product

If something is being given away for free in any other industry, do you think that it would ever be one of the best products available? Of course not, and you need to watch out for inferior products and services when it comes to cybersecurity. If you buy a cheap plate and it breaks, you just need to clean up the mess and get a better plate.

Cleaning up your computer is not so simple. If you spend half a day getting rid of junk cybersecurity software from your computer (as well as any viruses, you might have downloaded with it to get rid of), you should consider yourself lucky. Other people have had more unfortunate consequences and had to deal with their information being stolen. Picking the inferior option first when it comes to cybersecurity is not the way to go.


The Cost of Your Time

The cost of convenience is often worth it. To put it into perspective, the average person spends years of their life watching advertisements. What if you were to spend some of that time improving your life instead? What is that time worth to you, and is it worth the money you would otherwise pay for a premium service? People say it’s just their time they’re spending when they watch ads, but people often undervalue their time.

That is the rationale for a lot of people who buy premium services or cybersecurity services that are commonly considered to be easy to use. While you need to make that decision based on your situation, you should realistically take a look at the time you spend and what you do and ask what “free” means to you. If you have to spend your time, isn’t that a more precious resource? What value do you place on convenience? Do you want to spend your time more freely? Think about these questions for a few minutes. It’ll be worth the time.


The Cost of Your Information

Isn’t it worth it to secure your information? The cost of identity theft is high. While you might be able to cancel charges on your credit card, it takes you a good deal of time. On top of that, there is little consideration for the potentially ruined credit and the more permanent effects of identity theft (sometimes, you can’t get everything back). The real costs can add up very quickly.

There is also the simple peace of mind of your privacy. What is it worth it to you to not have corporations en masse knowing everything about you? While some services will still collect information on you (perhaps necessarily so) when you pay for them, it will not be on the same scale as free services who will sell your information to the highest bidder (or multiple high bidders).

To me, paying about $100 a year is worth that peace of mind.


Your Decision

Your financial decisions are, of course, your own. That being said, you might want to reconsider the value of your time and your information. While you may think cybersecurity services are on your side, they still have an agenda they need to consider. You don’t want to deal with that conflict of interest when your online safety and freedom (and that of those you love) are on the line.

Do you have any thoughts on free cybersecurity services? Do you have any additional concerns of your own? Are there any that you use that work out for you, and are any inconveniences that are worth it for you? Please leave a comment below and tell us what you think!

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