5 Things You Didn’t Know about Free Online Services

That age-old saying “nothing is ever truly free” has never been more real than when it comes to the internet. There are millions, if not billions of free websites, services, and apps available on the internet. Some of which even offer legitimately useful services or tools. But there’s a problem. Resources and manpower have been used for creating that helpful or entertaining experience, so the developers need to get the resources they spent back somehow. Which means that there’s usually a catch, even if a service or app claims to be free.

This catch often involves people’s data. One of the biggest data scandals of 2018 implicated Facebook and Cambridge Analytica. The whole scandal revolved around Facebook selling users’ data for profit and the ethical implications around that. While the details of those events won’t be discussed here, they still have implications on the topic at hand.

People are becoming more and more aware of how their online data is being used. It used to be normal for people not to care about their digital footprint. Because they felt that the convenience of the free service outweighed the personal data price they ‘paid.’ However, the negative implications of selling personal data are starting to come to light. Not to mention the devious methods some free online services use to keep their products ‘free’.

So, what does a free service hide behind all those shiny free features? Here are 5 things that you may not know about free online services.

Companies have been selling personal data for years

Most people willingly accept the trade-off to see ads in exchange for a free online service. This is nothing new, and people have been accepting this practice for years. What users usually don’t think about is how their personal experiences on this website or app may be used for financial gain.

Customers are not okay with companies selling their personal data. Which is why Facebook landed itself in a bit of hot water. The thing is, Facebook indeed isn’t the only company that’s doing this – they are just one high profile company that got caught.

A mobile phone is a data siphon

Most people these days, no matter their economic status, have a mobile phone. Most of them usually carry mobile phones all the time. Plus, all sorts of sensitive data is being shared on a phone, from photos and conversations to passwords.

Think about all of the free apps and software people use every day – from social media to work management apps and daily planners. All of that data gets stored on a server somewhere, ready to be accessed. It’s already apparent that some mobile network carriers sell their clients’ mobile numbers to advertisers for profit. Which begs the question – what other data are they selling? Apparently, even people’s locations aren’t safe. It’s been found that mobile network carriers in the US are selling their clients’ phone location data to various third parties.

Anyone has access when permission is given

Apps are what give mobile phones their functionality and provide entertainment. Whenever someone downloads an app for Android (from a reputable store at least), the app usually asks permission to gain access to specific data on the phone.

Some of this is necessary. A recording app would need access to the phone’s recording device and storage in order to function. What most people don’t realize, however, is that when they give developers permission to access data on their phones, that data can be accessed by anyone. At least, anyone the developer decides to share it with.

Certain apps contain trackers that identify mobile numbers and other sensitive data

While many apps do exactly what they say, some apps have some sketchy practices that aren’t exactly above board. There are those that catalog the device’s mobile number or it’s unique IMEI (International Mobile Equipment Identity) code that identifies each mobile device. Usually, the user doesn’t know about this. But this code or mobile number can then be used to identify all of the personal data gathered from different apps to create a profile about a person’s online activities.

Some websites track other online activity

A cookie notification is a pretty common sight on most websites. Browser cookies track the behavior of a person on that website to ‘better tailor the experience’ for the next time they visit. Like saving passwords or preferences. The problem is, those same cookies can also be used to track all of a person’s other online activities, including all the websites they visit.

A VPN can limit the data free online services gather

A VPN won’t stop a person from sharing personal details on a social media app. But it can stop websites and apps from gathering data that hasn’t been explicitly shared.

A virtual private network (VPN) acts as a sort of a middle-man between a user’s data and the websites they visit or apps they use. There are many VPN’s available out there for both personal computers and Android phones. With a VPN, the data being sent from a mobile device or PC goes through a VPN server which then encrypts it before connecting the user to a website. It actively does this in the background, so it’s a quick and painless process. This keeps websites from tracking user data because it provides a fake IP address. This results in the user being able to surf the web anonymously since the VPN hides their real IP.

It’s not all doom and gloom

Not all sites or services collect users’ data, of course. Some software creators offer a free version of their service with more limited features while the paid versions unlock more features. The chances of those services using any deceptive methods to generate an income are slim to none. However, things start moving toward the realm of duplicity when a service or software claims to be free. Especially when it’s something really useful that many people use and would be ready to pay for.

So the best course of action is to read through a free service provider’s terms and conditions carefully and choose with care. Even if the service looks trustworthy, it can be more prudent to get a VPN for extra piece of mind.

Adam Hansen

Adam is a part time journalist, entrepreneur, investor and father.