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What's The REAL Cost of 'Free'?

Consumers often shun software with even modest price tags in favor of the next tempting giveaway. But stop and think for a second and it’s pretty obvious these free downloads can’t really cost nothing, or the skilled people who make them wouldn’t be able to earn a living. No, free rarely means free, and you should always be wary of downloading more than you expected.

Advertising

The acceptable way to monetise free software is to use advertising, and whether you’re okay with that will largely depend on how much you want that new app without paying for it. As the saying goes, “if you’re not paying, you are the product,” and it rings true particularly in the mobile space.

A free app may show you adverts periodically while you use it, or it may request access to your data – location, contacts, even Facebook friends and Likes – in return for the service it provides. If you know and trust the company behind an app that might be a price worth paying, but is it really a fair trade when the app isn’t essential and you’ve never heard of the maker? You won’t think so when your details end up sold to marketing agencies around the world – or, worse, to identity thieves.

Other products

Another way free software is often monetised is by bundling it with other software. This occurs most often with free desktop applications, and the bundled applications are generally tucked away in the middle of the installation process. Even if you’re a novice, you should always choose a Custom installation over the Quick install, as you can click through each step and make sure nothing untoward is sneaked in.

At some point you may see a tick box (always checked by default) for a free extra, which is how you often end up with strange browser toolbars or search boxes after installing applications. Again, most of these extras won’t do any obvious harm, but they’re included in an attempt to change your habits and to find out more about you. If you can avoid them, it’s always best to do so.

Malware

Finally, the most sinister side to free software. You might think you’re only vulnerable to malware when you download something obviously dodgy, but while that definitely increases your chances of infection, it’s entirely possible for malware to be hidden inside legitimate software that’s been hacked – and from your position as the downloader you’ll have no way of knowing this when you visit a site.

Sticking to products and companies you know and trust is a good start, but it also makes sense to scan new downloads with antivirus software such as Norton Security before running the install process. If there is something hidden inside, security software will find it and eliminate the threat before any damage is done.