The idea of online privacy has been fading away for awhile now, with the internet, social media, apps, smart speakers, smart TVs, and connected cars all becoming parts of our everyday lives. But even programs designed to protect you online may be spying on you. An investigation by PCMag and Motherboard found the popular antivirus program Avest--with more than 435 million active users per month--has been collecting user data and selling it to third parties like Home Depot and Pepsi.
Avast is a free program that offers to protect users from viruses or malware while using the internet. But while doing that, the software also reportedly collects data on what websites users visit, when they visit them, and even users' location. Users have the ability to opt in or out of tracking, but the investigation found multiple Avest users who didn't know about that option. Following the report, Avest said it was discontinuing the tracking activity.
Michael Kan with PCMag says any program or service that is "free" is likely to involve this type of activity. "In order to monetize and keep their products running, they have to deliver ads, and to deliver those ads they have to do tracking on things like what websites you visit, what products you look for," he tells KTRH. "And it's not just Avast, but obviously big names like Facebook and Google have these capabilities too."
Because all of the tech companies have this capability and there are so many "smart" products out these days, it is important for users to be cautious about what services they use and their privacy settings. "You can't just assume that you can go online and everything's just going to be okay," says Kan. "Sometimes you're searching for things online that you just don't want out there, so there's a creepiness factor that people need to realize."
His advice: be very careful when downloading or using "free" products or services, and make sure you check for things like opt-in options. "It's really up to consumers to just educate themselves, and to understand what they're dealing with," says Kan.