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January 15, 2020

The cost of “Free” software

When browsing the internet today, options for any service, app or product that a business may require are often available at no cost… but are these truly free?

While free software (freeware) may be tempting to use because, after all, where’s the harm in just giving it a try, the devil’s in the details. A fact that Kaya Reichert, Simple partner and digitisation expert notes, can cost your organisation more than you bargained for.

Viruses, Adware, and Malware

A major threat associated with free software is that it has the potential to leave the user vulnerable to theft and exploitation. This occurs when computers become infected with viruses attached to file downloads which the user is duped into accepting. While most software is not designed with malicious intent, cybercriminals can easily attach viruses to otherwise innocuous programs and spread malware with little effort.

Even when not tainted by viruses, Adware is a frequent companion to free software, foisting intrusive advertisements upon the user. At best these can be sensationalist or persistent productivity killers, distracting and irritating staff. At worst these ads become conduits to scareware and fake claims that the computer in question is infected with a virus, all of which leads the user right back to malware which promises to ‘solve the problem’.

Spyware, Data Security, and Content Ownership

Spyware, which collects data from the computer in use and channels it to outside parties can reside in otherwise reputable programs. This can be a harmless means of collecting routine usage data, but can also prove to be actively malicious, providing cybercriminals with a window into the user’s private data. Luca Werth, a Simple partner and digitisation specialist, observes that:

‘From a risk management perspective, the usage of freeware often has implications for data security and the protection of internal intellectual property.’

This can take a variety of forms. Free software might retain rights to your data; small print might indicate that some or many rights to its use are retained by the developers. It also may routinely lacks encryption or essential data protection procedures. It’s important to remember that freeware is often yesterday’s technology and is not always adapted to guard against many of today’s hacking challenges – if the developer isn’t exploiting your data, others will certainly be trying to.

Switching Difficulties and Keeping Current

Creating software is rarely a charitable activity. Your free software of today will often be the paid service of tomorrow. When monetisation is not in the software developer’s long term strategy, freeware may become functionally useless and exposed to security risks as no one is expending any effort to improve, update or maintain its functionality.

This can have major long term implications. Kaya Reichert explains the impact that free software use can have on an organisation and its bottom line:

‘Unfortunately, ‘free’ often goes along with little thought about the technical requirements of the software. Meaning that the free software – once so easily decided for – is not fitting the company’s growth plans or does not cover every use required. In these cases, there are only two options left: A) Sticking to the software but upgrading to a paid plan (which is, in most cases, more expensive than other software offerings). B) Switching to different, better fitting software solution (in which case all of the data needs to be migrated and employees have to be newly trained – yikes!). My advice: Think twice when choosing your software, don’t be fooled by a ‘free’ offering.’

So, when considering the costs of software that should ultimately reduce staff efforts and govern data sharing, it’s wise to consider the overall costs and implications that ‘free’ software carries. From staff hindrance to data breaches and the possibility of costly software transfers somewhere in the future, can your company really afford the risk?