April 18, 2024

Avast Slapped With A Fine of $16.5 Million For Selling User Data

Avast, the popular cybersecurity company that’s best known for its VPN and antivirus software (especially its class-leading free antivirus solution), is being fined for infringing upon its user’s privacy. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has accused it of tracking and selling user data and has slapped it with a whopping fine of $16.5 million.

The news first came to light on Wednesday when the FTC filed a complaint against Avast. Then on Thursday, the agency imposed a fine and banned the company from selling user data to advertisers anymore. 

A titbit for all Techreport readers—although the above amount seems like a lot (and it is!), we have to take into consideration that this is a company that generates around $1 billion in revenue every year. So, $16.5 million is just 1.65% of its yearly revenue. Enough to stop it from selling user data? Debatable.

When And How Did It Start?

While it’s very difficult to put a finger on the exact date, it’s believed that Avast started harvesting user data way back in 2014 (a decade ago!), and that went on till at least 2020. 

It carried out most of the tracking through its antivirus and web browsing extensions. Through these, it was able to spy on very personal details of its users such as:

  • Financial status
  • Health status
  • Religious beliefs
  • Upcoming events in their lives
  • Personal desires
  • Location, and so much more

This data was then sold to over 100 third parties, including advertisers, data brokers as well as consulting firms who used this information to find their ideal user profile and target advertisements to them.

The investigation marked Google, Intuit, Home Depot, and Pepsi as some of the “past, present, and potential clients”.

Speaking of Google, it was really not surprising to find it on the accused list, especially when Google’s antitrust lawsuit over its ad business is all set to go to trial in September.

The data harvesting operations would have gone on for much longer without the efforts of PCMag and Motherboard—kudos to them! These two platforms conducted a joint investigation and prepared a report against Avast in 2020. 

Soon after that, the company shut down its data harvesting wing which was known as Jumpshot. For context, Jumpshot was a legit entity that claimed to have access to data from millions of devices as of August 2018.

What Did Avast Have To Say In Its Defense?

In its defense, Avast said that it has removed information that could be used to identify the users. But, as you might have guessed, the FTC said that this wasn’t enough. After all, a user can hardly ever be completely secure about their privacy with all the information about location, type of device used, website history, and timestamps available to unauthorized parties

A record of the websites someone visits can divulge everything from someone’s romantic interests, financial struggles, and unpopular political views to their weight-loss efforts, job rejections, and gambling addiction.Lina Khan, FTC chair

The irony here is that people use apps like Avast to prevent themselves from being tracked. Avast broke the promise it made to its users and did the tracking itself, forfeiting the biggest clause of its contract with the users i.e. maintaining privacy. 

You might have heard instances of social media companies like Facebook and TikTok sharing your data with malicious third parties. However, according to me, for a security company to do it is the gravest form of sin. It’s like a doctor killing a patient on purpose.

Read more: EU privacy advocates request banning Meta’s ad-free paid service 

The FTC has also understood this case’s severity and has ordered Avast to inform its customers that it has sold their data without their consent or knowledge. The company must also delete all the web data that it has collected from its users and permanently stop selling its user’s data from all Avast products. 

In an official statement, the company said that they don’t agree with all the accusations made by the FTC. However, they are really looking forward to shutting down the problem as soon as possible and getting back to serving their customers diligently.

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