Antivirus software from AVG could soon become the newest app on your computer, phone or tablet to harvest private data. Beginning October 15, the company plans to mine information about browsing and search history through its security products.
AVG, which holds the third-highest market share in its niche, offers a suite of antivirus and security programs for Windows, Mac, Linux, Android and even FreeBSD. It operates according to a “freemium” business model, meaning that most of its products are free to use in their basic form, but customers can pay to upgrade to versions with extra features.
The company will use the information to improve its software and “to make money from our free offerings so we can keep them free,” its new policy states. It adds that it will not sell the data to third parties, but says it may share user information with its business partners and companies that resell its products — which is kind of the same thing as selling the data, since AVG presumably makes money through its relationships with these companies, but we’re not here to split straws.
AVG says it takes steps to “anonymize” the data it collects so that it cannot be used to identify individual users. However, it also admits that “sometimes browsing history or search history contains terms that might identify you.” Although it promises to limit the privacy risks associated with this information, it does not spell out exactly how it intends to do that.
AVG also says it “cannot list out each and every type of non-personal data that we collect.” Instead, it just describes general categories of information that it mines.
What makes AVG’s announcement particularly troubling is that the tools you use to help protect your privacy may or may not be effective in hiding information about you from AVG. For example, it’s possible that AVG programs could determine your real IP address and location even if you access the Internet through a VPN. Since the AVG programs are closed-source and the company does not specify exactly how they work or which information they collect, it’s impossible to determine whether privacy protections on your system can work around AVG’s software.
The bottom line: AVG antivirus products are not a good choice if you’re concerned about privacy. Unfortunately, most other big-name antivirus suites pose similar problems. If you’re truly committed to staying private online, your best bet is probably to run a Linux-based operating system, where you don’t need to install antivirus at all because Linux is very rarely subject to attacks.