Opt In or Opt OutOne day, you realize that you’re computer is running kind of sluggish. You notice there are lots of browser toolbars and applications installed, and you don’t even know how they got there. Well, guess what…

You installed them. And you probably didn’t even realize it.

When you download free software, often times it comes bundled with other software that you didn’t ask for. For example, take a look at this screenshot of the download screen for Adobe Reader.

By default, that option in the top-right to include McAfee Security Scan Plus is checked. If you don’t uncheck it, then when you run the Adobe Reader installer, it will inform you that you are about to install the McAfee software as well as Adobe Reader. Unless you uncheck the box, the installer will run and you’ll end up with both programs installed – not just Adobe Reader.

Maybe you actually wanted to install McAfee Security Scan Plus. Most people don’t. But by making “opt in” the default choice, Adobe is able to get a lot of people to install the software because most people simply don’t think to opt out.

Why Do They Do This?

It’s simple. It’s business. If you think something is free, then think again.

Software developers and web developers often offer “free” stuff, but at the end of the day they want to monetize that stuff in some way. Unless they’re open source developers legitimately volunteering their time to a community project, they need to make money. In some cases, free things are offered as a way of advertising. If you use a free product from a company, you’re more likely to buy a paid product from them. Other times, the “free” software is a way to deliver paid advertisements to the consumer. This is often the case with websites and mobile apps.

A final form of monetization is to bundle other applications with your own. I offer you “Awesome Software Package” for free on my website. You download the installer and install it. During the installation, I happen to mention that you’re also going to install “Crappy Software Stuff.” I’ll give you a chance to opt out, but you’ll probably skip right over that. If you leave well enough alone and install “Crappy Software Stuff,” then I’ll get paid anywhere from $0.50 to a few dollars by the publisher of “Crappy Software Stuff.”

Sounds Good. What’s the Harm?

That may sound like a win-win situation. You get free software that you want. The publisher of that free software gets paid. The advertiser, who publishes “Crappy Software Stuff,” also gets a new user.

The problem is that the extra stuff you install may at best be useless and at worst be malicious and harmful.

Don’t get me wrong. Some bundled software is ok. The McAfee software bundled with Adobe Reader, for example, is legitimate software. You might want it. McAfee is simply trying to expand it’s user base.

More often than not, however, these bundled applications are things like browser bars that don’t offer you anything of value. But, these browser bars can produce revenue of their own if you use them (i.e. by showing you advertisements or directing you to a sponsored search page). It’s not uncommon for me to open up Internet Explorer on someone else’s computer and see two, three, or four browser toolbars installed. These slow down your web browser, clutter up your workspace, and take away screen real estate from the website you’re trying to view.

Sometimes, though, these applications can go beyond simply being useless and they can be malicious. This is how people often get spyware involved. Contrary to popular belief, you don’t get spyware on your computer from going to a website or opening an e-mail. You have to install it. It has to live on your computer.

This stuff often comes in benign forms, like an offer to show you coupons or find you shopping discounts. But, before long, you’ll realize that pop-up windows are appearing out of nowhere, and the software might just be sending information about you to it’s maker. This could be your browsing behavior, or a sophisticated piece of spyware could capture your usersnames, passwords, and other sensitive information.

So What Do You Do?

Pay close attention when you install software. Understand that if you’re installing something that’s free, it may very well come with some kind of bundled software. You do not have to install that bundled software. You are perfectly free to uncheck that box, and only install the application that you downloaded.

Unless you’re certain that the bundled software is a) safe, b) useful, and c) offered by a reputable publisher, you should err on the side of caution and opt out of installing the bundled software. It’ll keep your computer from getting cluttered with useless stuff and you’ll lessen the risk that your computer gets infected with some kind of spyware or malware.

Install what you asked for. Just say no to everything else.