All That Free Software You Use? Here’s How You’re Paying For It

Source: Thinkstock

Source: Thinkstock

As disheartening as it may be, it looks as though the old adage is true: There is no such thing a a free lunch. That even extends into the world of technology, despite the fact that the majority of people have grown accustomed to freebies like social networking, email, and a multitude of mobile phone applications. But here’s the thing: It isn’t free. None of it. And it’s not that that’s a secret, necessarily. It’s just not really understood.

While you may not pay Google directly for using Gmail — or send Facebook or Instagram a check every month — all of these companies are still being compensated for their products somehow. After all, they’re businesses. In order to develop and innovate new technologies and programs, it takes capital. Research, development, marketing, and testing all have hefty price tags, and it wouldn’t be profitable for them to simply develop products or services and just give them away, right?

So, how are we paying these companies for using their technology? For the most part, with our data. There has been a huge amount of hullabaloo surrounding privacy and data in the wake of Edward Snowden’s revelations about the National Security Agency, but the uncomfortable truth is that people are primarily giving their data and personal information away, rather than having a hacker or spy in a dark room extract it from their personal files.

That’s right; every time you post a photo on a social network, sign into Gmail then conduct a Google search, or even use your iPhone to have Siri find directions to a bar or restaurant, you’re voluntarily forking over information about your demographic, interests, family, friends, and even your personal preferences in products or services. The way that Google or Facebook have become so successful is that they have found a way to take that raw data and monetize it.

You may think that’s unfair or an invasion of your privacy, and that argument may have some merit. But everyone who uses those services agrees to certain terms and conditions, and you are using a product developed by a business. It is that business’s product, and all of use are choosing to use it. We don’t have to, but we choose to.

For a lot of people, that’s a trade they’re willing to make.

Yet, there are others who don’t seem to mind until they actually are personally affected. For example, remember when Facebook was taking photos users uploaded and utilizing them in advertisements? A lot of people really weren’t happy about that, and yet they had agreed to allow Facebook to do it when they signed up for the service. The situation eventually saw resolve when it was discovered that a few toggles within the settings stopped Facebook from using the photos and data, but it still didn’t sit well with many people.

But Facebook isn’t the only one, Google also ran into a similar situation.

Now, for a lot of people, the fact that these companies are holding on to data and selling it as targeted advertisements isn’t that big of a deal. And it might not be, but Facebook has slowly but surely devolved into something resembling broadcast television, in which users are fed a series of advertisements or sponsored posts along with the statuses and photos shared by friends and family. Twitter is headed down the same path, in an effort to further monetize its user base. Sponsored Tweets have been around for a while, but now the company has integrated the ‘buy’ button as well.

It may not be bothersome, but it does erode the user experience to some degree.

Source: Thinkstock

Source: Thinkstock

But what about data storage? Where does our data go?

By and large, this is still something that is getting worked out. Most of our information is stored in large data centers that span across the country. Data centers are often giant complexes filled with powerful computers and servers, soaking up vast quantities of electricity that are only manned by a handful of employees.

While these data centers are often secure from a physical standpoint, they are under constant virtual threat. Security has become much stronger over the years, but hackers and programmers are steadily trying to stay one step ahead. Often the only times these cyber-crimes really make the headlines is when certain company’s systems are exploited, as in the case of Home Depot or Target. These kinds of data breaches expose people’s credit card information, posing a monetary threat to individuals who shopped there. But there are all kinds of data that can be stolen.

What about the celebrity photo leaks that happened a little while back? That occurred through Apple’s iCloud system, in which someone was able to compromise Apple’s defenses and gain access to storage accounts containing nude photographs. The exact process used to do so is still unknown, but it was a clear reminder that if your data is out there, it’s probably vulnerable.

To protect yourself from having your data sold to advertisers, and even from snooping authorities, there are alternatives out there, including services that charge you for an email account. This is likely an idea that will grow in popularity in a few years, given people’s need for sensitive data to remain secure. A fairly recent episode of NPR’s Planet Money radio show and podcast dealt with exactly this idea.

In order to stop ‘data trafficking’, entrepreneurs are setting out to create apps and programs that keep data where users leave it. As heard in the Planet Money episode, these entrepreneurs have spent time within the business itself, and now are taking precautions to keep their data off the grid. Location information attached to photographs and blocking GPS tracking systems are mentioned, and the ideas to stop data trafficking essentially encrypts everything.

Of course, this means no lucrative advertising dollars, or data that can be sold for monetization. Hence, you need to pay for it.

Again, paying for email seems like something only older folks do when they are charged monthly for AOL. But it is a viable solution to keep your data safe. Edward Snowden used one of these services, and many other journalists, politicians and others likely do as well. And it’s because they understand that their data, no matter what it is, has value.

That’s what is important to remember. The information that makes you who you are — your name, age, address, shopping preferences, racial and gender identities — it all has a value. It’s that value that you are trading when using social networks and email services, even map applications and games.

It may not bother you at all, and that may be a good thing or bad thing depending on who you ask. But it’s further proof that nothing in life is free.

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