The Do's and Don'ts of Using Free SoftwareMichelle Rafter
The latest word in software is “free.”
These days it’s possible to load your PC with programs to write, read email, crunch numbers, play games, capture screenshots of web sites, burn, play and organize music and a whole lot more -- without spending a dime.
But there’s a downside to all that free software. If you’re not careful about the programs you download or where you get them, you could end up with more than you bargained for, namely spyware or other malicious software. While you’re downloading the program you intended to put on your PC, the malware is secretly slipping onto your machine over your Internet connection in the background, eating up memory, destroying files, launching botnet across cyberspace or grabbing information that thieves can use to steal your identity.
Government agencies and the computer industry are doing their best to crack down on the individuals and organized crime rings behind malware. They’re working together on education campaigns to warn consumers and industry standards to define what constitutes bad software all the better to catch it before it spreads, according to Tim Lordan, executive director at the Internet Education Foundation, a Washington D.C. online policy organization. For its part, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) recently revamped its three-year-old web site, called OnGuardOnline, adding video tutorials and interactive games to alert consumers to the possible dangers that come with downloading software.
But in the end, it’s up to individual to act responsibly to save themselves from the trouble spyware and malware can cause, including identity theft, says Nat Wood, an assistant director in the FTC’s bureau of consumer protection. “If you don’t know the source, think twice before you click ‘Download,’ or don’t do it at all.”
Some of the main sources of free software include:
Download web sites such as CNet and ZDNet, which offer free programs along with programs people pay money to use.
Peer-to-peer networks such as Limewire that allow individuals to share music files and other programs.
Social networks such as MySpace and Facebook, which are built on so-called open platforms that allow software developers to create widgets or mini-applications that anybody can use inside the network.
Free software can also be Web-based, like Gmail, the email service from Google that stores a person’s email online rather than on their PC hard drive.
Put Safety First
How can people take advantage of what’s available and still protect themselves? Here are some suggestions from the Internet Education Foundation, which runs a consumer awareness web site called GetNetWise, as well as the FTC and the Center for Democracy and Technology, a Washington D.C. electronic privacy rights group:
1. Investigate. Before you download something, research the party offering the software. If it’s a game, look on gamer message boards to see if anyone’s complained about them, suggests Lordan, the IEF executive director. Even if a company looks like they’re on the level, read the language of their user agreement to find out what privacy and security measures they’ve put in place, suggests Ari Schwartz, a Center for Democracy and Technology deputy director.
2. Check for a seal of approval. Download software only from well-known websites or from vendors who participate in an authorization or verification program where they’ve had to prove they’re legit. One such organization is TRUSTe, which gives software vendors and merchants a “trusted seal” logo to display on their websites once they’ve successfully gone through an extensive due diligence process.
3. Avoid peer-to-peer file sharing networks. Music lovers won’t like to hear it, but peer-to-peer file sharing networks are dangerous because there’s no way to investigate the person on the other side of the modem, Lordan says.
4. Be wary of social networking applications. The same widgets that MySpace and Facebook members use to spice up their accounts have been used to launch malware on the unsuspecting. Social networking companies are working with industry groups to minimize the problem, but they haven’t gotten rid of it completely, so it’s a good idea to be extra cautious when deciding which widgets to use or not use, says Wood, the FTC assistant director.
5. Use anti-virus and anti-spyware software. The best offense is a good defense. Keep anti-virus and anti-spyware on your machine and make sure to update it and run it often, says Schwartz, with the Center for Democracy and Technology. “Think of it like an oil change,” he says. “If you don’t do it often, it’ll end up costing you a lot more to clean up afterwards.”
Using free software is like asking someone who’s standing on a roof to throw you a pillow, IEF’s Lordan says. “You want to know who’s throwing the pillow to you because, if you don’t, you might get an anvil in the forehead instead,” he says.
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