freeFree email, free accounts, free storage, free software, free hosting, free this, free that, free the other. “There’s no such thing as a free lunch”. Companies plying their wares on the Internet are not charities. They are trying to make a profit. And there is nothing wrong with that. Everyone has to pay their bills, their employees’ salaries, their taxes, and more, and they should be entitled to make a reasonable profit along the way.

However, if they are giving you something for nothing, they are making money from somewhere else, and that is far too often by selling information about you. What they are giving you for free may be simply to entice you to use the service, so that they can sell something of value to others. Whether that’s personal information about you, or just more effective advertising, you are the product that is being sold, and all you get out of it is a free account.

If you’ve been paying attention to developments online and in the media, that’s probably no surprise to you. However, there are some things you probably should consider more carefully before you share much more online. Here are some things to consider when you use a free service.

I read your email

Well, I don’t, but Google does. They don’t hide that fact, nor do they make excuses for it. Your email is parsed by their systems to identify exactly what ads to serve to you. Even if it is a machine doing it, and not a human, that is just a little more sharing than I want to be doing. If you want to keep the content of your emails to yourself, you may need to look at another service. The ads won’t be a relevant, but that’s probably just fine.

Targeted Ads

There is little that puts me on edge more than looking at something on Amazon, then seeing an ad for that exact item at the next 20 or so websites I visit. It truly feels like someone is watching me and my every move. That’s because someone is, in the form of cookies, and embedded ads that leverage those cookies. Amazon has mastered the art of knowing what there is to know about its customers, and probably knows more our choices than my close members of the family do. Great service, great prices, but it’s up to you if you want to be so ‘well-known’ to a corporation.

“Special” offers

What makes many of these offers so special is that they are formulated just for you, based off information the company has gathered in a file about you. Companies build databases of customer information based off visits to their sites, their partner sites, affiliated sites, and others. Some are mining Facebook, Twitter, and other social media sites so they can learn as much as they can about you, so that they can sell you more, and more efficiently.

Personal data

While some of that data is mined from logs, and other information comes from third party sites you visit and content you post, a lot of the data collected is provided by yourself when you sign up for that free account, or extra storage space, or some other perk that costs you nothing. Except your privacy. What’s your name? What year were you born? What’s the highest level of education you completed? What’s your annual household income? Would you like to refer friends or family members and get a bonus while “helping” them too? Have you “liked” anything online, or commented on someone else’s posts? Tagged or been tagged in a photo? All of that activity can be tracked, associated with you, filed, and indexed. Pretty soon, that company giving you a free service knows so much more about you. And what do they do with all that information? Sell it, lease it, share it, or mine it to offer more targeted advertising. That’s where the big money is.

Limited liability

What about your data stored online? I don’t mean details about you personally, but rather your photos, documents, and other digital content stored “in the cloud”. The free storage providers all exercise due diligence when storing your data, but accidents happen, and if your irreplaceable family photos or the novel you’ve worked on for the past year are deleted, there’s no real recourse. Sure, you are entitled to a refund of the fees you paid, but just what do you think you are going to get back from a service you don’t pay for?

Security

Dropbox, OneDrive, Google Drive, Box, to name a few, offer cloud-based storage for free. Sure, there are paid account options to let you store even more data, but many of us probably have more than enough space on the free services. And what are you storing in this free space? Whatever it is, do you have a copy somewhere else? If you don’t, then you should make a copy as soon as possible. Accidents happen, and a refund of your monthly service fee won’t help if irreplaceable data is lost. And how is your access to that data secured? How strong is that password, and when was the last time you changed it? To get to data stored on a thumbdrive, the bad guys have to get to the thumbdrive. To get to data stored in the cloud, they just need Internet access and patience. So make sure you are encrypting sensitive files, like those that contain your PII.

The bottom line is this. Read, and understand, the Terms of Service and Privacy Policies for each and every service you use. Pay attention when they update those, so you know whether or not your continued use constitutes your acceptance of something you’d rather not do. Review the settings, especially those related to privacy, and make sure you’re comfortable with what is visible and what is private. Always use encryption when accessing the services, especially when logging on. Use file-based encryption for sensitive data with keys that you control, and finally, make sure you back up your data!