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Proprietary Software Is Often Malware

Proprietary software, also called nonfree software, means software that doesn't respect users' freedom and community. A proprietary program puts its developer or owner in a position of power over its users. This power is in itself an injustice.

The point of this page is that the initial injustice of proprietary software often leads to further injustices: malicious functionalities.

Power corrupts; the proprietary program's developer is tempted to design the program to mistreat its users. (Software whose functioning mistreats the user is called malware.) Of course, the developer usually does not do this out of malice, but rather to profit more at the users' expense. That does not make it any less nasty or more legitimate.

Yielding to that temptation has become ever more frequent; nowadays it is standard practice. Modern proprietary software is typically a way to be had.

As of January, 2020, the pages in this directory list around 450 instances of malicious functionalities (with more than 500 references to back them up), but there are surely thousands more we don't know about.

Injustices or techniques Products or companies
  1. Back door:  any feature of a program that enables someone who is not supposed to be in control of the computer where it is installed to send it commands.
  2. Digital restrictions management, or “DRM”:  functionalities designed to restrict what users can do with the data in their computers.
  3. Jail:  system that imposes censorship on application programs.
  4. Tether:  functionality that requires permanent (or very frequent) connection to a server.
  5. Tyrant:  system that rejects any operating system not “authorized” by the manufacturer.

Users of proprietary software are defenseless against these forms of mistreatment. The way to avoid them is by insisting on free (freedom-respecting) software. Since free software is controlled by its users, they have a pretty good defense against malicious software functionality.

Latest additions

  • Android phones subsidized by the US government come with preinstalled adware and a back door for forcing installation of apps.

    The adware is in a modified version of an essential system configuration app. The back door is a surreptitious addition to a program whose stated purpose is to be a universal back door for firmware.

    In other words, a program whose raison d'être is malicious has a secret secondary malicious purpose. All this is in addition to the malware of Android itself.

  • Some security breakers (wrongly referred in this article as “hackers”) managed to interfere the Amazon Ring proprietary system, and access its camera, speakers and microphones.

  • Some social networking apps are designed to get users addicted. These try to merge into your daily routine by exploiting social pressure and your natural desire for socialization, converting habitual gestures into thorough addiction. As already noted for games, addictiveness is essentially based on random rewards. In the present case, the rewards are messages from friends and followers, “likes,” news, interesting videos, etc. The software is designed to trigger users' desire for these rewards, and keep this desire alive as long as possible.

    • By default, notifications are sent every time a new item comes in, instead of, say, once a day. They are associated with sounds or vibrations which make them even more compelling. (Remember Pavlov's experiments with rats.) These triggers are often opt-out, and many users don't try to turn them off. They are most effective when the app is installed on a mobile device which is always on and never leaves the user. As a side effect, they may contribute to the addictiveness of “smart” phones.
    • Users are served selected material that is likely to interest them, based on profiling. (This paves the way to manipulation, by the way.)
    • The app interface is designed to make users stay on the site as long as possible, using infinite scrolling for example.
    • The company that owns the social network tries to cover users' needs as extensively as possible, by acquiring other companies if needed. Once users have concentrated most of their online activities and a lot of their personal data on a single platform (or a set of platforms that belong to the same group), they find it almost impossible to leave. And even if they wanted to, they would have a hard time digging out the relevant options, and the app would aggressively nag them to stay.

    A good way to minimize the risk of addiction, short of avoiding social media altogether, is to turn off notifications and leave as little as possible of your own data on the platform.

  • Safari occasionally sends browsing data from Apple devices in China to the Tencent Safe Browsing service, to check URLs that possibly correspond to “fraudulent” websites. Since Tencent collaborates with the Chinese government, its Safe Browsing black list most certainly contains the websites of political opponents. By linking the requests originating from single IP addresses, the government can identify dissenters in China and Hong Kong, thus endangering their lives.

  • Apple plans to require that all application software for MacOS be approved by Apple first.

    Offering a checking service as an option could be useful and would not be wrong. Requiring users to get Apple's approval is tyranny. Apple says the check will only look for malware (not counting the malware that is part of the operating system), but Apple could change that policy step by step. Or perhaps Apple will define malware to include any app that China does not like.

    For free software, this means users will need to get Apple's approval after compilation. This amounts to a system of surveilling the use of free programs.


 [FSF logo] “The Free Software Foundation (FSF) is a nonprofit with a worldwide mission to promote computer user freedom. We defend the rights of all software users.”