Security News

Do free countries have more digital wellbeing?

Emma McGowan 17 Jun 2022

As the world becomes more digital, issues like digital wellbeing and digital citizenship are increasingly important.

How are you all doing out there, Internet People? According to the first ever Avast Digital Wellbeing Report, it’s a mixed bag. We wanted to analyze the relationship between a country’s freedom of the internet, measured by its Freedom on the Net Index, and the digital wellbeing of its citizens. And while there were some positive findings, there were also some that gave us pause.

Our research has found that people in countries with more digital freedom are at a lower risk of cyber attacks than those in countries with less digital freedom. But we also found that the mere existence of privacy policies — which are more common in countries with higher degrees of digital freedom — might not be enough to provide privacy protection to a population.

“Our findings indicate that where governments around the world restrict their citizens’ online freedom, there is a corresponding increased risk of people falling victim to cyber attacks,” Ondrej Vlcek, CEO of Avast, says. “This is often tied to a lower GDP in these countries which leads to the use of older systems which are more prone to attack, and the use of free and potentially illegal content which often is less secure. However, the distinction isn’t cut and dried — people in countries with more digital freedom still face frequent attacks, and our findings show that there is still work to do when it comes to privacy protection — in free and in unfree countries."

When most people talk about a decline in digital wellbeing since the start of the pandemic, they’re likely referring to things like increased screen time, loneliness, and Zoom burnout. But if we pull back and look at digital wellbeing from the macro, rather than micro view, it takes on a much more complex set of parameters. So rather than examining how individuals are feeling since the pandemic turned all of our worlds upside down, we wanted to see how the digital wellbeing of entire populations has fared. 

How are digital wellbeing and internet freedom related?

First step: What is digital wellbeing? Avast defines digital wellbeing as a combination of digital freedom, cybersecurity, and privacy. An internet user with a high level of digital wellbeing has the ability to utilize the internet in an open, regulated, private, secure, and informed way. On the other hand, an internet user with a low level of digital wellbeing is using a highly restricted internet that collects massive amounts of personal data, is flooded with misinformation, and prone to cyber attacks. 

In order to determine where on the scale different countries fall, we combined our own data regarding cybersecurity risks, device age, and privacy challenges with the 2021 “Freedom on the Net” report from Freedom House. This annual report assesses how much freedom internet users have across the globe, based on the prevalence of government surveillance and censorship, manipulated online discussions, and disrupted ICT networks.

“This vital report illustrates that cyberattacks go hand in hand with online repression,” Mike Abramowitz, President of Freedom House, says. “We’re proud that Freedom House’s Freedom on the Net report informs Avast’s work to strengthen digital wellbeing.”

Less freedom and greater risk

The top level finding of our Digital Wellbeing Report was that people living in Free countries were less likely to be victims of a cyber attack (30%) than those living in Partly Free or Not Free (36% for both) countries. The researchers hypothesize that this correlation could be due to a higher rate of violation of user rights, prohibition of encryption services, large scale state surveillance, data collection, and the presence of backdoors used for state surveillance. 

People in free countries are less at risk from cyberattacks

 

Total score and status of freedom according to the Freedom on the Net report (higher is better) vs. risk of encountering a cyberattack based on Avast data (lower is better)

They also noted that Partly Free and Not Free countries tend to have lower GDP per capita than Free countries, which means they’re more likely to be using out of date hardware and software and also are more likely to try to access content and software via torrenting sites. Only 28% of users in Free countries are still using outdated operating systems. By contrast, 38% percent of users in Partly Free countries are using outdated systems, as are 41% of users in Not Free countries. 

People living in countries with less digital freedom, where older software is prevalent, are more at risk from cyberattacks

Users in Free countries on average use more up-to-date operating systems (that are still supported by Microsoft with software and security updates), making them less prone to attack.

What exactly are those privacy policies even doing?

Our researchers hypothesized that the prevalence and understandability of robust privacy policies would be correlated with levels of online freedom. That’s because comprehensive, readable privacy policies are often held up as public evidence that users’ privacy is being protected. 

What they found was a little more complicated. While Free countries were more likely to have privacy policies in place (70%) than Partly Free (52%) and Not Free (47%), there was no direct correlation between the vagueness and readability of those policies and the level of online freedom in those countries. You also basically need to be reading at a college level in order to understand them: we found that many privacy policies across the board scored as “difficult to read” or “very difficult to read,” according to the Flesch reading ease formula.

The presence of privacy policies is higher in countries with more digital freedom

The presence of privacy pages in Free countries is higher than in countries Partly or Not Free.

Even though privacy policies are more prevalent in free countries, they are similarly vague and hard to read as in countries partly or not free

In many Free countries privacy policies are vague, or hard to read; Readability: <46% very difficult to read; 46-58% difficult to read; Vagueness: “0% - no segments containing a vague word”; 100% - all of the segments containing vague words

In other words: Those privacy policies might not be doing much. 

“Privacy regulations such as GDPR in Europe and CCPA in California require that users are informed about how their data is used, which is supposed to create more transparency for the user,” Vlcek says. “However, if privacy policies are written in a vague and unreadable way, this goal is essentially missed.”

As the world becomes more digital, issues like digital wellbeing and digital citizenship are increasingly important. And with this report and future ones, Avast is committed to not only helping people stay safe and free online, but also researching and reporting on how everyone's online life can be improved.