Dangers of ‘free’ online products, services

Even if you are not handing over cash, you are likely paying with your personal data, your attention, or even your online security.

In our digital world, the promise of something for nothing can be alluring. Social media platforms, email services, and a host of other online tools and apps offer their services at no cost to the user.

On the surface, this may seem like a great deal, who does not love free stuff? However, the old adage “if you are not paying for it, you are the produc” rings true more than ever in the internet age.

When a service is offered for free on WhatsApp, Facebook, Instagram even on a SMS, it is important to take a step back and consider what the true cost may be.The reality is that in the world of technology, very little is truly free.

Even if you are not handing over cash, you are likely paying with your personal data, your attention, or even your online security. Hackers and cybercriminals have become increasingly sophisticated in exploiting the lure of free online offerings to gain access to sensitive information, compromise devices, and carry out a range of nefarious activities. 

I will be exploring the risks associated with "free" online services which are now considerable and growing. From data harvesting to malware distribution, the dangers are multifaceted and ever-evolving. By understanding these risks and adopting a more cautious approach, you can protect yourself and your digital assets from the predatory practices of bad actors online.

The true cost of “free” online servicesWhen a social media platform, email provider, or other online service offers its wares for free, the underlying business model is typically not immediately clear. However, a closer look often reveals that users are paying in ways that are less obvious than a simple monetary transaction.

Data harvesting

One of the most common ways free online services generate revenue is by collecting and monetising user data. From browsing history and personal preferences to location data and contact information, these platforms accumulate a wealth of information about their users.

This data is then sold to advertisers, data brokers, and other third parties, who use it to target users with personalised adverts and offers.While the collection of user data is often buried in the fine print of terms of service agreements, the scale and scope of this practice can be staggering.

Social media giants like Facebook, Twitter, and Tik Tok have built multi-billion-dollar businesses on the backs of user data, leveraging it to fuel their advertising ecosystems. Even “free” email providers like Gmail and Yahoo Mail have been known to scan the contents of users' inboxes to serve up targeted ads.

Attention harvesting 

Another way free online services extract value from users is by capturing and monetising their attention. These platforms are designed to be highly engaging, using a variety of psychological tricks to keep users scrolling, clicking, and interacting for as long as possible.

The more time users spend on the platform, the more opportunities there are to serve them adverts or other monetised content.This attention-harvesting model has given rise to the phenomenon of “surveillance capitalism,” where user engagement data is collected and sold to the highest bidder.

Companies like Facebook, Google, and Amazon have become adept at using AI-powered algorithms to predict and manipulate user behavior, keeping people glued to their screens and generating ever-increasing ad revenues.

Malware distribution 

Perhaps most sinister of all, free online services can also be used as vectors for the distribution of malware and other cyber threats.

Hackers and cybercriminals have become increasingly sophisticated in their ability to hide malicious code within seemingly innocuous free apps, browser extensions, and even email attachments.Once installed on a user's device, this malware can be used to steal sensitive information, hijack online accounts, encrypt files for ransom, or even turn the device into a bot for use in large-scale cyberattacks. In some cases, free online services may even be designed from the ground up as vehicles for malware distribution, with the sole purpose of compromising user devices and data.

The dangers of free online servicesThe risks associated with free online services go far beyond the mere inconvenience of seeing targeted adverts or experiencing subtle attention-sapping effects.

The true danger lies in the potential for serious harm to individual users, businesses, and even national security.Data breaches and identity theft By collecting and storing vast troves of user data, free online services become attractive targets for cybercriminals.

Hackers may attempt to breach these platforms' defences to steal personal information, login credentials, financial data and other sensitive details that can be used for identity theft, fraud, and other malicious activities.The consequences of such data breaches can be devastating, leading to financial losses, and the compromise of critical accounts and services.

Victims may also face the time-consuming and stressful process of trying to recover from the fallout of identity theft, which can have long-lasting effects on their lives.

Ransomware and extortion

As mentioned earlier, free online services can be used as vectors for the distribution of malware, including ransomware — a particularly insidious type of malware that encrypts a user's files and demands a ransom payment in exchange for the decryption key.Ransomware attacks can be crippling, rendering devices and data inaccessible and potentially causing significant financial and operational disruptions for both individuals and businesses.

Moreover, cybercriminals have become increasingly sophisticated in their extortion tactics, sometimes threatening to publicly release sensitive information or launch additional attacks if the ransom is not paid.

National security threats

The widespread use of free online services, coupled with the data harvesting and malware distribution practices associated with them, can also pose significant national security risks.

Hostile nation-states and state-sponsored hacking groups may attempt to leverage these platforms to gather intelligence, disrupt critical infrastructure, or even sow social and political discord.

For example, free social media platforms have been used to spread disinformation, conspiracy theories, and extremist ideologies, which can undermine democratic processes and social cohesion. Similarly, free email services and messaging apps may be exploited by terrorist organizations or foreign intelligence agencies to coordinate and communicate covertly.Protecting yourself from the dangers of "free" online servicesGiven the myriad risks associated with free online services, it is crucial for individuals and organizations to adopt a more cautious and discerning approach when engaging with these platforms.

Here are some key strategies to help protect yourself and your digital assets:Scrutinize the Business Model: When considering a free online service, take the time to research and understand the company's underlying business model. Look for clues about how they generate revenue, such as data collection and advertising practices, and be wary of any opaque or evasive language in their terms of service.

Limit Data Sharing: Be judicious about the personal information you share with free online services, especially sensitive data like financial details, login credentials, and contact lists. Utilise privacy settings and opt-out features to minimize the amount of data these platforms can collect about you.Avoid Suspicious Attachments and DownloadsBe extremely cautious about opening email attachments or downloading files from free online services, as these can be vectors for malware distribution.

If an offer or download seems too good to be true, it likely is.Use strong passwords and two-factor authentication Ensure that your accounts for free online services are secured with strong, unique passwords and enable two-factor authentication whenever possible. This can help prevent unauthorized access and limit the damage in the event of a data breach.

Maintain situational awareness Stay informed about the latest cybersecurity threats and be on the lookout for suspicious activity or unusual behavior from free online services you use. If something seems off, don't hesitate to discontinue your use of the service or take other protective measures.Invest in reliable security solutions Consider investing in robust cybersecurity tools, such as antivirus software, virtual private networks (VPNs), and identity theft protection services.

These can help safeguard your devices and personal information from the dangers posed by free online services.Prioritise privacy-focused alternativesWhenever possible, opt for privacy-focused alternatives to free online services, even if they come with a subscription fee. These paid services may offer better data protection, security features, and overall transparency about their business practices.

By adopting a more cautious and informed approach to free online services, you can significantly reduce the risks to your personal data, digital assets, and overall online security. Remember, if an online offering seems too good to be true, it is often because there is a hidden cost, one that you may not be willing to pay.

  • Stay safe for more details WhatsApp +263772278161 or [email protected]
  • Mutisi is the CEO of Hansole Investments (Pvt) Ltd. He is the current chairperson of Zimbabwe Information & Communication Technology, a division of Zimbabwe Institution of Engineers. — +263772 278 161 or  [email protected]


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