User Benefits


Users want to be able to trust apps. They want an honest answer to the question: "Should I trust this app and its claims?" Openly Operated is a certification that ensures apps and their operators are verifiably transparent in everything they do, and therefore creating user protections and meaningful assurances. On this page, we describe specific scenarios of how the transparency in Openly Operated products make them superior to the status quo.

Case: Dishonest Apps

Users have no way of knowing if a Privacy Policy is truthful or not. Companies take advantage of this by writing Privacy Policies that sound amazing, but are either completely made up and unenforced, or simply copy-pasted from somewhere.

Problem Scenario An iPhone app for managing contacts has a stellar Privacy Policy and promises to keep a user's data private, but instead secretly uploads the user's entire address book to a shady third party vendor for a quick profit.
Openly Operated Solution Openly Operated certifications require apps to fully disclose their source code, making it impossible to hide any code. In this scenario, while undergoing Openly Operated certification, any code that uploads the user's address book to third parties would be immediately revealed.
Examples "Millions of people uploaded photos to the Ever app. Then the company used them to develop facial recognition tools.", May 9th, 2019
"IT Services Giant Harvests Contacts, Tracks Users", March 13th, 2019
"Two-thirds of all Android antivirus apps are frauds", March 14th, 2019
"Facebook is using dishonest and manipulative tactics", April 16th, 2018
"Terms and Conditions are the biggest lie of our industry", August 21st, 2015
"Apps sending sensitive data to Facebook, including sexual activity", March 1st, 2019
"Dozens of iOS apps share user location data with tracking firms", September 10th, 2018
"Here are the data brokers quietly buying and selling your personal information", March 2nd, 2019
"AccuWeather deflects blame after selling users’ data, even if they opt out", August 24th, 2017
Case: Malicious Apps

Developers and companies can release seemingly innocent apps that are actually purely designed to mine user data, because there's no way to see or confirm what's happening on their servers.

Problem Scenario A VPN app claims to encrypt connections for an additional layer of security, but is instead actually spying on the websites and apps that user uses.
Openly Operated Solution Openly Operated certifications require apps to not just disclose the source code on the client app, but also all code on the server. In this scenario, while undergoing Openly Operated certification, the VPN's servers' spying behavior would be caught and reported.
Examples "How To Make $80,000 Per Month On The App Store", June 9th, 2017
"VPNs are tracking your private data passing through their VPN services.", July 29th, 2017
"Tech’s ‘Dirty Secret’: The App Developers Sifting Through Your Gmail", July 2nd, 2018
"Fake Pirate Chick VPN Pushed AZORult Info Stealing Trojan", May 10th, 2019
"Why companies want to mine the secrets in your voice", March 14th, 2019
"CryptoCurrency Price Tracker Caught Installing Backdoors", October 29th, 2018
Case: Manipulative Apps

In the course of attempting to squeeze every penny out of their users, or trying to get users more and more addicted to their apps, companies sometimes use data about their users against them, treating them as though they were lab monkeys.

Problem Scenario A travel booking website runs studies on their users and finds that people booking trips using Macs are higher spenders. As a result, the company secretly inflates its prices for visitors who use Macs.
Openly Operated Solution Openly Operated certifications require apps to have complete audit trails, so they they leave unforgeable logs of their major, user-influencing decisions. In this case, the audit trails would reveal both the company's "platform comparison" study, as well as its questionable decision to increase prices for an otherwise unsuspecting portion of their visitors.
Examples "Mac users being fed pricier hotel searches", March 22nd, 2017
"How Uber And Other Digital Platforms Could Trick Us Using Behavioral Science", May 13th, 2019
"Kids apps are filled with manipulative ads", October 30th, 2018
"How app developers keep us addicted to our smartphones ", February 17th, 2018
"It's no accident that Facebook is so addictive", August 2018
Case: Insecure Apps

For a company, spending more time and money on security could mean moving slower and less profits. So, many companies simply ignore proper security and secure processes, leading to breaches, leaks, and other loss of user data.

Problem Scenario A venture-funded messaging startup is under pressure from investors to grow quickly. Instead of taking adequate time to build and audit the proper security infrastructure, they put together a slick user interface that makes the app seem trustworthy. Soon after launch, hackers breach their user and chat database, selling the data on the dark web.
Openly Operated Solution While nothing can guarantee security, Openly Operated certifications require apps to be clear about whether or not they're taking proper security measures by having Open Infrastructure and code. It would become evident through the certification process that this app was optimizing for the appearance of security rather than actual security — potential users are then warned to steer clear. In the future, we hope it becomes an industry standard for professional reviews of apps and services to include a "Security and Privacy" section, using Openly Operated audit results in their evaluations.
Examples "Medical information of 150,000 rehab patients exposed", April 22nd, 2019
"Exposed Database Leaks Addresses, Income Info of Millions of Americans", April 29th, 2019
"Popular games send unknown data to unknown entities, even if developers are reputable",
"FEMA data leak exposes personal info of 23 million disaster survivors", March 22nd, 2019
"Google Photos bug exposed the location and time of your pictures", March 20th, 2019
"Facebook says it 'unintentionally uploaded' 1.5 million people's email contacts without their consent", April 18th, 2019
"12,449 Data breaches in 2018, a 424% increase over the previous year", March 6th, 2019
"Enterprise VPN apps allow attackers to bypass authentication", April 14th, 2019
"Google Stored Unhashed G Suite Passwords for Over a Decade", May 21st, 2019
Case: Internal Threat

Users never have any way to verify who has unlimited, unaudited access to their data. This can include employees, contractors, third party partners, connected libraries and companies, contractors, vendors, interns, and more. Of course, once any of the above has the user data, they may then share it with friends, family, acquaintances, or even just put it on the internet anonymously.

Problem Scenario A "disappearing photos" social app has thousands of employees and even more contractors. Every summer, they hire hundreds of interns, some as young as 18 years old. Eventually, the interns discover they can access any user's private photos simply by looking up their username. The next month, millions of supposedly deleted photos leak onto the internet, and nobody knows why.
Openly Operated Solution Openly Operated requires all possible points of administrative access to user data to leave a verifiable audit trail. Additionally, the requirement of being fully open source publicly exposes any "employee-only backdoors".
Examples "Uber can track any customer using its 'God View' tool", November 2014
"Snapchat Employees Abused Data Access to Spy on Users", May 23rd, 2019
"Insider attacks more common, harder to detect after cloud migration", April 3rd, 2019
"Uber said it protects you from spying. Security sources say otherwise", December 2016
"Facebook passwords for hundreds of millions of users were exposed to Facebook employees", April 18th, 2019
"Hackers compromised Microsoft support agent's credentials to access customer email accounts", April 13th, 2019
"Facebook's controversial 'revenge porn' pilot program is coming to the US, UK", May 23rd, 2018
Case: No Accountability

When something goes wrong with an app or service, who is responsible? Owners and operators sometimes obfuscate or completely hide who they are in order to lessen their personal financial, legal, or reputational impact.

Problem Scenario An investment app promises users a 10% yearly return. After receiving millions in customer deposits, the app disappears, along with all the investments. Users attempting to identify the owner of the investment app instead find that the company was anonymously incorporated in the Cayman Islands, and the names on the website are individuals who don't actually exist.
Openly Operated Solution To be certified as Openly Operated, operators are not allowed to be anonymous — they are required to identify themselves and to be reachable. Auditors then verify this information in the Auditing Process step. Openly Operated apps also provide ways to contact the operators, so users can directly clarify any concerns.
Case: Ownership Change

Even if an app's current owners and operators are fully trusted, what happens if the app gets acquired, or is sold off to different owners? Change of ownership can happen at any time, and happens frequently with successful products. The risk is that the new management may want to increase profits by sacrificing user security and privacy.

Problem Scenario An international messaging app whose founders are privacy advocates is acquired by a large social networking company, who vaguely promises that the messaging app's users will not exploit personal data for advertisements. A few years later, the social networking company starts to do it in secret anyway.
Openly Operated Solution Openly Operated requires that all code is open source and verifiable. In the case of an ownership change, proof of claims such as claims about privacy would have to be re-submitted and re-audited.
Examples "WhatsApp co-founder renews call for users to delete Facebook", March 17th, 2019
"Google's acquisition of health care app has privacy experts concerned.", November 14th, 2018
"What happens after consumer data after a company acquisition?", August 18th, 2016
Case: Hidden Breaches

Currently, users rely on companies self-reporting when security breaches and privacy violations happen; this is like having prisoners guard themselves. Obviously, companies have little incentive to broadcast that user data was stolen if they can simply destroy all evidence. If you feel like today's data breaches are happening too frequently, then there's bad news for you: the number of actual data breaches that simply get swept under the rug are likely much, much higher.

Problem Scenario A once widely used search engine and email service is hacked. With hundreds of millions of user passwords stolen, company executives realize it is the largest hack in internet history. But to avoid further depressing the price of the already poorly performing stock, the company keeps the hack a secret. Years later, when it is courting an acquisition, the company realizes that the details of security breach would be uncovered during due diligence, and finally fesses up to the hack.
Openly Operated Solution Openly Operated products are required to publicly provide verifiable infrastructure-level audit trails. In cases of hacks, there are usually (but not always) telltale signs such as direct access to a database password and changes in firewall settings or security groups. These audit logs are reviewed by auditors every time an Openly Operated evaluation occurs, providing an upper bound for how long the company has to disclose breaches.
Examples "Yahoo knew about the breach in 2014", November 10th, 2016
"Uber Hid 2016 Breach, Paying Hackers to Delete Stolen Data", November 21st, 2017
"Google hid major Google+ security flaw that exposed users’ personal information", October 8th, 2018
"TeamViewer Confirms Undisclosed Breach From 2016", May 17th, 2019
"FreshMenu hid data breach affecting 110,000 users", September 14th, 2018
"What Drives Tech Internet Giants To Hide Data Breaches ", October 9th, 2018
"One billion more accounts hacked", December 16th, 2016
Other Benefits

This is not an exhaustive list of user benefits and protections. There are likely many other unsavory behaviors that would be uncovered and stopped if companies and apps were fully transparent. Openly Operated creates a deterrent effect against lazy, insecure, or malicious programming. But the benefits aren't just for users — read about how companies benefit, and be sure to subscribe to the newsletter for updates.


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