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Free tool reveals the true cost of ‘free’ online services

New data discovery portal developed by Finnish security firm F-Secure helps to uncover what Facebook, Amazon, Google and other tech giants know about consumers

Cyber security firm F-Secure has developed a free online tool that helps to expose the true cost of using some of the web’s most popular free services – the abundance of data that has been collected about users by Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon Alexa, Twitter and Snapchat.

The F-Secure Data Discovery Portal sends users directly to the often hard-to-locate resources provided by each of these service providers that allow users to review their data, securely and privately.

“What you do with the data collection is entirely between you and the service,” said Erka Koivunen, chief information security officer at F-Secure. “We don’t see – and don’t want to see – your settings or your data. Our only goal is to help you find out how much of your information is out there.”

More than half of adult Facebook users (54%) adjusted how they use the site in the wake of the scandal that revealed Cambridge Analytica had collected data without users’ permission. But the biggest social network in the world continues to grow, reporting 2.3 billion monthly users and an increase of 61% in year-on-year quarterly profits and 39% in annual profits at the end of 2018.

Although Facebook faces a potential $5bn settlement with the Federal Trade Commission in the Cambridge Analytica case, critics say this is insignificant, amounting to little more than a “slap on the wrist” for a company that reported more than $15bn in revenue in the first three months of 2019.

Koivunen added: “You often hear, ‘if you’re not paying, you’re the product’. But your data is an asset to any company, whether you’re paying for a product or not. Data enables tech companies to sell billions in ads and products, building some of the biggest businesses in the history of money.”

F-Secure said it is providing the tool as part of the company’s growing focus on identity protection that secures consumers before, during and after data breaches. By spreading awareness of the potential costs of these “free” services, the company said the Data Discovery Portal aims to make users aware that securing their data and identity is more important than ever.

A recent F-Secure survey of 400 consumers in each of nine countries, including the UK, found that 54% of internet users aged over 25 worry about someone hacking into their social media accounts. The security firm noted that data is only as secure as the networks of the companies that collect it, and the passwords and tactics used to protect accounts. Although the settings these sites offer are useful, they cannot eliminate the collection of data, the company said.

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“Although consumers effectively volunteer this information, they should know the privacy and security implications of building accounts that hold more potential insight about our identities than we could possibly share with our family,” said Koivunen. “All of that information could be available to a hacker through a breach or an account takeover.”

But he said there is “no silver bullet” for users when it comes to permanently locking down security or hiding it from the services they choose to use.

“Default privacy settings are typically quite loose, whether you’re using a social network, apps, browsers or any service,” said Koivunen.

“Review your settings now, if you haven’t already, and periodically afterwards. And no matter what you can do, nothing stops these companies from knowing what you’re doing when you’re logged into their services.”

F-Secure recommends separating social media from private data by using separate browsers, using encrypted apps such as Signal rather than WhatsApp, using paid email services such as ProtonMail, and locking down information such as age, relationship status and location.

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