The real cost of free apps and services
Learn how to protect your personal information when you are using free services.
You may use “free” apps for online shopping, email, cloud storage, and social media without really thinking about why those services are “free.” They are most likely free because they are harvesting and selling data about you, such as your preferences, age, race, marital status, interests, and location, among other things. These businesses sell user data to advertisers, who use that data to direct targeted advertisements to you based on your interests and online activity. For example, if you browse for shoes online, you may see ads for shoes on other sites you visit for a while after that. If you use a free site or app that finds promotional codes for you to apply at checkout, it may be collecting and selling the data that you share.
What is the harm in this?
While some may feel uncomfortable with targeted advertisements, others may like when advertisers connect them to products and services that align with their interests. So, what is the harm? It is that information you wish to keep private may never actually be private. When you search the web on a free service, your activity may be broadly tracked—including, for example, searches related to a medical condition you don’t want others to know about—and shared with third parties.
In addition, many social media companies collect your data and then sell it, or even use it, for purposes you may not be entirely aware of. Think back to the Cambridge Analytica scandal in 2018, where millions of people were unaware of their Facebook data being harvested for political advertisements. Social media posts can also include photos or information about others who have not consented to the publication of their information (for example, children or friends who do not have social media profiles). Digital marketing companies will combine this information to build a robust digital profile—a centralized collection of everything they know about you, your friends, and your family—and sell it to a number of sources. Do you have the right to make those choices for your friends and family?
What can I do?
Determine whether you want to use a particular free app or software in exchange for your personal information. Here is what you can do to help come to a decision:
- Do not click on links for free apps. Independently search for the app in your device’s app store.
- Figure out where the company is located and where your data is stored because data rights vary among countries (and in some cases, states). Once you know the location of the company and where your data is stored, look into the data rights you may be afforded (such as the right to request deletion of your data).
- Manage your settings and preferences. If you do not want your data shared with third parties, check the privacy settings of the app or software to see if you can opt out of data sharing, activity tracking, or interest-based ads. Keep in mind that opting out of sharing does not mean you will not get ads, just that your information will not be shared for the purpose of personalized ads.
- For online holiday shopping, stick with trusted websites and, if possible, work directly with the primary vendor. Before using a promo code site, consider whether that discount is worth the price of your data privacy.
As you may have heard time and again, if you are not paying for it, you are not the customer; you are the product. It’s always a responsible practice to be intentional with the types and amount of personal information you share, and to question a service that seems “too good to be true.”