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.

In this section, we also list one other malicious characteristic of mobile phones, location tracking which is caused by the underlying radio system rather than by the specific software in them.

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 September, 2022, the pages in this directory list around 550 instances of malicious functionalities (with more than 670 references to back them up), but there are surely thousands more we don't know about.

If you want to be notified when we add new items or make other changes, subscribe to the mailing list <www-malware-commits@gnu.org>.

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

2022-07

UEFI makes computers vulnerable to advanced persistent threats that are almost impossible to detect once installed...

  • 2022-09

    B-CAS [1] is the digital restrictions management (DRM) system used by Japanese TV broadcasters, including state-run TV. It is sold by the B-CAS company, which has a de-facto monopoly on it. Initially intended for pay-TV, its use was extended to digital free-to-air broadcasting as a means to enforce restrictions on copyrighted works. The system encrypts works that permit free redistribution just like other works, thus denying users their nominal rights.

    On the client side, B-CAS is typically implemented by a card that plugs into a compatible receiver, or alternatively by a tuner card that plugs into a computer. Beside implementing drastic copying and viewing restrictions, this system gives broadcasters full power over users, through back doors among other means. For example:

    • It can force messages to the user's TV screen, and the user can't turn them off.
    • It can collect viewing information and share it with other companies to take surveys. Until 2011, user registration was required, so the viewing habits of each customer were recorded. We don't know whether this personal information was deleted from the company's servers after 2011.
    • Each card has an ID, which enables broadcasters to force customer-specific updates via the back door normally used to update the decryption key. Thus pay-TV broadcasters can disable decryption of the broadcast wave if subscription fees are not paid on time. This feature could also be used by any broadcaster (possibly instructed by the government) to stop certain persons from watching TV.
    • Since the software in receivers is nonfree, and tuner cards are designed for either Windows or MacOS, it is impossible to legally watch Japanese TV from the Free World.
    • As the export of B-CAS cards is illegal, people outside Japan can't (officially) decrypt the satellite broadcast signal that may spill over to their location. They are thus deprived of a valuable source of information about what happens in Japan.

    These unacceptable restrictions led to a sort of cat-and-mouse game, with some users doing their best to bypass the system, and broadcasters trying to stop them without much success: cryptographic keys were retrieved through the back door of the B-CAS card, illegal cards were made and sold on the black market, as well as a tuner for PC that disables the copy control signal.

    While B-CAS cards are still in use with older equipment, modern high definition TVs have an even nastier version of this DRM (called ACAS) in a special chip that is built into the receiver. The chip can update its own software from the company's servers, even when the receiver is turned off (but still plugged into an outlet). This feature could be abused to disable stored TV programs that the power in place doesn't agree with, thus interfering with free speech.

    Being part of the receiver, the ACAS chip is supposed to be tamper-resistant. Time will tell…

    [1] We thank the free software supporter who translated this article from Japanese, and shared his experience of B-CAS with us. (Unfortunately, the article presents DRM as a good thing.)

  • 2022-08

    A security researcher found that the iOS in-app browser of TikTok injects keylogger-like JavaScript code into outside web pages. This code has the ability to track all users' activities, and to retrieve any personal data that is entered on the pages. We have no way of verifying TikTok's claim that the keylogger-like code only serves purely technical functions. Some of the accessed data could well be saved to the company's servers, and even shared with third parties. This would open the door to extensive surveillance, including by the Chinese government (to which TikTok has indirect ties). There is also a risk that the data would be stolen by crackers, and used to launch malware attacks.

    The iOS in-app browsers of Instagram and Facebook behave essentially the same way as TikTok's. The main difference is that Instagram and Facebook allow users to access third-party sites with their default browser, whereas TikTok makes it nearly impossible.

    The researcher didn't study the Android versions of in-app browsers, but we have no reason to assume they are safer than the iOS versions.

    Please note that the article wrongly refers to crackers as “hackers.”

  • 2022-08

    Some Epson printers are programmed to stop working after they have printed a predetermined number of pages, on the pretext that ink pads become saturated with ink. This constitutes an unacceptable infringement on users' freedom to use their printers as they wish, and on their right to repair them.

  • 2022-04

    Today's “smart” TVs push people to surrender to tracking via internet. Some won't work unless they have a chance to download nonfree software. And they are designed for programmed obsolescence.

  • 2022-08

    US states that ban abortion talk about making it a crime to go to another state to get an abortion. They could use various forms of location tracking, including the network, to prosecute abortion-seekers. The state could subpoena the data, so that the network's “privacy” policy would be irrelevant.

    That article explains why wireless networks collect location data, one unavoidable reason and one avoidable (emergency calls). It also explains some of the many ways the location data are used.

    Networks should never do localization for emergency calls except when you make an emergency call, or when there is a court order to do so. It should be illegal for a network to do precise localization (the kind needed for emergency calls) except to handle an emergency call, and if a network does so illegally, it should be required to inform the owner of the phone in writing on paper, with an apology.

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