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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

  • The CIA exploited existing vulnerabilities in “smart” TVs and phones to design a malware that spies through their microphones and cameras while making them appear to be turned off. Since the spyware sniffs signals, it bypasses encryption.

  • The Alipay Health Code app estimates whether the user has Covid-19 and tells the cops directly.

  • Internet-tethered Amazon Ring had a security vulnerability that enabled attackers to access the user's wifi password, and snoop on the household through connected surveillance devices.

    Knowledge of the wifi password would not be sufficient to carry out any significant surveillance if the devices implemented proper security, including encryption. But many devices with proprietary software lack this. Of course, they are also used by their manufacturers for snooping.

  • The ToToc messaging app seems to be a spying tool for the government of the United Arab Emirates. Any nonfree program could be doing this, and that is a good reason to use free software instead.

    Note: this article uses the word “free” in the sense of “gratis.”

  • Some Avast and AVG extensions for Firefox and Chrome were found to snoop on users' detailed browsing habits. Mozilla and Google removed the problematic extensions from their stores, but this shows once more how unsafe nonfree software can be. Tools that are supposed to protect a proprietary system are, instead, infecting it with additional malware (the system itself being the original malware).


 [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.”