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 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.

Ideally we would list every instance. If you come across an instance which we do not list, please write to webmasters@gnu.org 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.

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...

  • 2023-01

    A dispute between Blizzard and one of its partners caused World of Wordcraft to go offline in China. The shutdown may not be permanent, but even if it is not, the fact that a business disagreement can stop all users in China from playing the game illustrates the injustice of requiring the use of a specific server.

    We expect that users must pay to use that server, but whether that is the case is a side issue. Even if use of that server is gratis, the harm comes from the fact that the program doesn't allow people to make and use other servers for that job.

    Let's hope game fans in China learn the importance of rejecting nonfree games.

  • 2022-11

    Hackers discovered dozens of flaws in the security (in the usual narrow sense) of many brands of automobiles.

    Security in the usual narrow sense means security against unknown third parties. We are more concerned with security in the broader sense—against the manufacturer as well as against unknown third parties. It is clear that each of these vulnerabilities can be exploited by the manufacturer too, and by any government that can threaten the manufacturer enough to compel the manufacturer's cooperation.

  • 2022-11

    The iMonsters' app store client programs collect many kinds of data about the user's actions and private communications. “Do not track” options are available, but tracking doesn't stop if the user activates them: Apple keeps on collecting data for itself, although it claims not to share it with third parties.

    Apple is being sued for that.

  • 2022-10

    The Microsoft Office encryption is weak, and susceptible to attack.

    Encryption is a tricky field, and easy to mess up. It is wise to insist on encryption software that is (1) free software and (2) studied by experts.

  • 2022-11

    Obeying a demand by the Chinese government, Apple restricted the use of AirDrop in China. It imposed a ten-minute time limit during which users can receive files from non contacts. This makes it nearly impossible to use AirDrop for its intended purpose, which is to exchange files with strangers between iMonsters in physical proximity. This happened after it became known that dissenters were using the app to distribute digital anti-government fliers anonymously.

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