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 directory is to show by examples 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 designed to function in a way that 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 an opportunity to be tricked, harmed, bullied or swindled.

Online services are not released software, but in regard to all the bad aspects, using a service is equivalent to using a copy of released software. In particular, a service can be designed to mistreat the user, and many services do that. However, we do not list instances of malicious dis-services here, for two reasons. First, a service (whether malicious or not) is not a program that one could install a copy of, and there is no way at all for users to change it. Second, it is so obvious that a service can mistreat users if the owner wishes that we hardly need to prove it.

However, most online services require the user to run a nonfree app. The app is released software, so we do list malicious functionalities of these apps. Mistreatment by the service itself is imposed by use of the app, so sometimes we mention those mistreatments too—but we try to state explicitly what is done by the app and what is done by the dis-service.

When a web site provides access to a service, it very likely sends nonfree JavaScript software to execute in the user's browser. Such JavaScript code is released software, and it's morally equivalent to other nonfree apps. If it does malicious things, we want to mention them here.

When talking about mobile phones, we do list one other malicious characteristic, location tracking which is caused by the underlying radio system rather than by the specific software in them.

As of December 2023, the pages in this directory list around 600 instances of malicious functionalities (with more than 710 references to back them up), but there are surely thousands more we don't know about.

Ideally we would list every instance. If you come across an instance which we do not list, please write to to tell us about it. Please include a reference to a reputable article that describes the malicious behavior clearly; we won't list an item without documentation to point to.

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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.

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  • 2024-03

    Microsoft is using malware tactics to get users to switch to their web browser, Microsoft Edge, and their search engine, Microsoft Bing. When users launch the Google Chrome browser Microsoft injects a pop up advertisement in the corner of the screen advising users to switch to Bing. Microsoft also imported users Chrome browsing data without their knowledge or consent.

  • 2024-03

    GM is spying on drivers who own or rent their cars, and give away detailed driving data to insurance companies through data brokers. These companies then analyze the data, and hike up insurance prices if they think the data denotes “risky driving.” For the car to make this data available to anyone but the owner or renter of the car should be a crime. If the car is owned by a rental company, that company should not have access to it either.

  • 2023-12

    Surveillance cameras put in by government A to surveil for it may be surveilling for government B as well. That's because A put in a product made by B with nonfree software.

    (Please note that this article misuses the word “hack” to mean “break security.”)

  • 2023-11

    Microsoft has been annoying people who wanted to close the proprietary program OneDrive on their computers, forcing them to give the reason why they were closing it. This prompt was removed after public pressure.

    This is a reminder that angry users still have the power to make developers of proprietary software remove small annoyances. Don't count on public outcry to make them remove more profitable malware, though. Run away from proprietary software!

  • 2023-12

    Newag, a Polish railway manufacturer, puts DRM inside trains to prevent third-party repairs.

    • The train's software contains code to detect if the GPS coordinates are near some third party repairers, or the train has not been running for some time. If yes, the train will be “locked up” (i.e. bricked). It was also possible to unlock it by pressing a secret combination of buttons in the cockpit, but this ability was removed by a manufacturer's software update.

    • The train will also lock up after a certain date, which is hardcoded in the software.

    • The company pushes a software update that detects if the DRM code has been bypassed, i.e. the lock should have been engaged but the train is still operational. If yes, the controller cabin screen will display a scary message warning about “copyright violation”.

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