Exclusive: Why do Google, Facebook, WhatsApp spy on users? Avast's Vincent Steckler explains
Avast CEO Vincent Steckler in an exclusive interview with International Business Times, IndiaAvast

Everybody values privacy, especially on the Internet where information spreads like wildfire. While users have the luxury of getting almost any information with a simple web search or connect with family and friends over social network for free, there is a flip side to it.

Users would be pretty aware that Google, Facebook and WhatsApp spy on them to place advertisements, which are the main source of revenue for web-based services, including news publications, magazines, social media and search engines. Serving the users' purpose for free comes at a huge cost to these companies, so they display advertisements to make up for costs and earn profit.

When you are sign up for Google services, you automatically allow the web giant to monitor your data and serve you ads. According to Avast, Google and Facebook show ads based on users' online behaviour, including topics they discuss with friends on chat. WhatsApp, which refrains from displaying any ads, serves as "data collector" for Facebook by sharing users' interests by looking at their chats. While this may sound disturbing for many, some users accept targeted advertising as they serve the purpose.

We spoke to Vincent Steckler, CEO, Avast on the sidelines of the new Avast mobile security software launched by the company on Thursday. Steckler shared his company's views on Google, Facebook and WhatsApp's spying activities and how users can prevent these companies on them.

IBT: Is targeted advertising by companies like Google and Facebook risky, and if so, to what extent?

Steckler: Targeted advertising by companies like Google and Facebook are not risky per se, but people should be aware of the amount of data apps collect. The more an app or web service knows about you, such as your location, your interests, your contacts, the better they can target you. In order to get to know you better and to learn your habits, companies collect data while you are browsing the web or while engaging with their apps. Some people prefer seeing targeted ads, as the ads are more relevant for them, while some people find targeted advertising to be, to a certain extent, an invasion of privacy. Google, Facebook, and the others cannot and do not collect the information by themselves as website owners also cooperate in collecting information.

IBT: Should mobile users be worried about a recent analysis by Avast which suggests Google, Facebook and WhatsApp are spying on their users?

Steckler: This actually was not an analysis, but an observation we made about the data these companies collect and use to target users with advertising. These services all serve very useful purposes – email, search, messaging and social networking. The Internet is fundamentally financially supported by advertising. Users expect free content and services—news services, networking, or messaging—amongst others. These services are not cheap to provide and like much other media (such as print newspapers, non-government supported TV, etc.) advertising pays the bills. However, it is not effective to serve the same advertisement to everyone as is done in traditional media and thus data about an individual—demographic, interests, prior browsing history, etc.,--is used by these companies, and many others, to better target advertising.

IBT: Is there a way users can prevent being spied upon?

Steckler: The only way to completely prevent being spied on in today's day and age would be to not use the Internet. Alternatively, users can avoid using services that access sensitive data to target ads, but again, in today's world most companies have access to your data. Users must decide for themselves whether an app they use is worth sharing their data with or not.

IBT: Does Avast offer any protection from spying? 

Steckler: With Avast Online Security – a browser add-on included in Avast Free Antivirus – we do provide users with insights on social media that the website interacts with, the advertising networks websites use or share data with, and the analytics used to improve the website. We identify these from either cookies or programming code that is embedded in the website. For example, IBT's India website uses seven services: Facebook, four ad networks, and two analytic services. In contrast, IBT's US website uses 66 services: seven social networks; 53 ad networks, and six web analytics services. Even the Avast website uses two ad networks (Google) and two analytic services (Google and Adobe). Mobile users can use our Avast Mobile Security app for free, which includes a free Privacy Advisor, including an Ad Detector that will show users which data apps can access and which ad networks they serve.

IBT: What is the best way to protect data stored on mobile phones, cloud software? 

Steckler: The best way to protect data stored on mobile phones is to have a lock on your phone. About two thirds of Indians do not lock their mobile phone with a PIN. Besides a PIN on their local device, users should use a strong authentication for the cloud services they use. Nine out of ten Indians say they use a strong password, but our research shows that only 9.2% do. Passwords should contain a combination of letters, numbers, special characters, and upper and lower case letters. Also, a length of 12 – 16 characters is recommendable. Additionally, mobile users should use VPNs like Avast SecureLine VPN to encrypt their traffic when connecting to public Wi-Fi. Wi-Fi networks that do not require a password to connect, leave users vulnerable to spying. Hackers can pretty much see everything: browsing activity, passwords and identity. It is also recommendable to have an anti-theft app installed, like Avast Anti-Theft, which can remotely wipe data in case the device is stolen or lost.