No such thing as a free beer?

Ars technica is reporting on a study that reveals that, unbeknownst to the user, some Android apps are sending personal information such as telephone numbers and GPS coordinates off to unknown recipients. The only surprising thing here is that anyone is surprised.

When we talk about FOSS we talk about free as in freedom, not free as in beer. I like to extend the free beer analogy to describe three kinds of software.

First we have FOSS – the beer really is free, and we know it’s so because of the freedoms we’re granted. It’s served up in a clear glass with a list of ingredients, and if you’re still not sure you get the recipe – make it yourself if you like, it comes out just same. Or vary the recipe to suit your taste.

Then there’s the beer you pay for. The seller is keeping the recipe a secret so you don’t know what’s in it and can’t alter it, but at least the deal is clear – you get the beer and the seller gets the cash. If he starts poisoning people with dodgy beer the money stops flowing and that’s not what he wants. It’s usually safe to drink.

Finally, a very odd kind of beer indeed. The guy is giving this stuff away as fast as he can make it, but he refuses to tell you what’s in it. Why’s he doing that? And why would you take even a sip through the straw of the opaque cup he insists you drink it from?

Although it seems a bit extreme to suggest that every app with hidden source code and no cost is out to get you, I do wonder about the motives behind such things sometimes. If you must dabble in the stuff, and I think it’s risky on a device that knows everywhere you go and everyone you speak to, then at least take the time to check the required permissions carefully before installing. Does that Silly Sound Effects app really need access to your location, or the internet? I don’t think so.

A better option, where possible, is to seek out the FOSS alternative. One of the aims of this site is to help you find it.