Freeware Software? Better Click Again!

001 If you weren’t aware, malware is big business in today’s day and age.  Now when I say malware, I’m not just talking about viruses and Ransomware, which seems to be all the rave these days; specifically, I’m referring to spyware and adware.

Lately, I have been seeing a lot of machines coming into the shop with advertising pop-ups, browser redirects and various forms of keyloggers running in the background.  I ask myself, how exactly is it possible for so many machines to have the same kind malicious software on them.

My research has shown that the majority of the malware my customers have encountered are directly related to bundling software they download unknowingly.  Bundling software, also known as deceptive software in many tech circles, is typically software that is downloaded in conjunction with a free program (most of the time) or game.  It’s typically denoted by a checkbox in the lower left hand corner of the installation prompt and in small print as an automatic opt-in option.

002

Here is an example of the opt-in check box commonly used when installing Java.  As you can see, there is a check box on the lower left hand of the prompt advising the user of the option to install a 3rd party program and change the default settings. If the user clicks through this screen without properly inspecting it, they are opting into the installation of the said software.  By the end of the installation, the system has been modified.

The main issue with the bundling software is that the Freeware or Software publishers the user intends to download from does not do a very good job of vetting the software.  Instead they rely on a 3rd party vendor to do the screening per their contract.  The contract typically states that the 3rd party will ensure that the software is not malicious in nature, but also includes an indemnification or hold harmless clause to the effect that they are not responsible if the software is harmful in any capacity.  That seems to be the extent of the vetting process. This is unfortunate as it does not take much time to test a software package prior to distribution.

Now don’t get me wrong, not all bundling software is consider malicious in nature and there are great companies like Java, who do provide a thorough inspection prior to bundling; but this is not an industry practice.

If bundling software is such a problem, then why do software publishers continue to use it?  That’s a great question and it is as simple as saying TINSTAAFL. There Is No Such Thing As A Free Lunch and free software is no exception.

Bundling software is a great source of revenue for software publishers and vendors.  It allows them to receive revenue by allowing an advertising vendor or other software publisher to embed their software in the installation process.  The freeware is essentially an advertising hub.

Seems pretty harmless for the most part.  The only red flag is that in many cases, the software publisher has embedded software in their product that is not fully disclosed to the end-user.  Just a lot of ambiguity and warranty disclosures in the End-User Licensing Agreement (EULA), but I digress.

So what’s the answer to prevent your computer from being impacted by malicious software?  The easy answer would be to always deselect the bundling options, but honestly, it is not always practicable as it has advantages. Here are some tips that I provide to my customers:

  1. Consider the Source

The best way to ensure that your computer is not impacted is by not downloading software or bundles from sources that are less than reputable.  If you are not sure, Google their name or product.  If the first entry that comes up is malware or potentially unwanted programs [PUP] entries, then think twice before downloading.

  1. Reviewed Checked Entries or Custom Installation

One thing I forgot to mention is that bundled software is not always downloaded because a user forgets to check the box in the 003installation screen.  There are also instances where the bundled software is hidden within the installation process and the only way to prevent it from installing is by going through a custom installation.  Selecting this option will give you a list of all components and software that will be installed on your machine.  Deselect all undesirable software packages.

  1. Actively Scan For Malware

It is good practice to have your Anti-Virus and/or Anti-Malware solution scan for infections directly after the installation of Freeware or bundled software.  Catching the exposure early can help prevent future headaches.  Always keep you’re A/V or Anti-Malware definitions updated.

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