Open Source At a Glance: Better than Propriety Apps?

A couple of years ago, I remember my friend telling me about how she merged google maps with Pokemon Go to win the game in a fraction of the time it would usually take. I was dumbfounded, not knowing that open source code can allow such actions to take place.

The conversation about open source applications and their advantages opened again when people suspected FaceApp to be stealing user data and selling it to the Russians. FaceApp is a recently widely popular app that lets you see what you could possibly look like when you’re older using augmented filters. While there is little reason to believe that they’d actually be selling your photos to the Russians, data security is a big issue.

There is an open-source alternative to FaceApp– AI Portraits, that reveals who it’s built by, how it is built, where the data goes and how vulnerable it is to risks because its code is available online. A similar alternative to Google Maps is available too, known as OpenLayers. You can use it to access maps from any map provider, such as Microsoft or Yahoo. You can add any plugin you may need and if you’re a coder, you can resolve bugs yourself! A very popular open-sourced messaging application is Telegram X, you may have heard about it when rumors of WhatsApp being a security risk started surfacing a couple of years ago. All of these are popular alternatives to propriety or privately developed apps.

Privately developed apps, unlike open source, don’t let their code be accessed by the general public. So if there are any channels that allow security breaches to take place, they cannot be accessed. Even if the app developers intentionally have a system in place that extracts user data from the cloud, there is no way of knowing because the coding framework is kept under lock and key. This is why even if people are aware of the data security risk that comes with installing Facebook, there’s not much they can do about it. Because ultimately Facebook is a privately license enterprise that can only be modified by the people employed by it. Open-source applications aren’t developed for profit, and since they aren’t licensed so they have little incentive to sell your data to third parties. The biggest advantage is that open source apps are transparent about data vulnerabilities.

Since the code is available online and there are many people to review it for you, they’ll be quick in noticing any errors or security loopholes that may be present in the program. People who aren’t directly affiliated with the developers that made the app can suggest changes to it or revamp the code to make their own versions. Hence open source has a wider variety of advantages to tech. The code can be modified to add or remove features for different uses.

For example, an app that sets reminders and makes checklists may be modified to ring an alarm alongside the reminder too. Developers can just take the code from the open-source and build upon it. It reduces cost as well as improves the quality of the program. Moreover, if the application fails to break even in the market and is abandoned by the developers, it doesn’t mean all is lost. Since these apps aren’t licensed, they can be modified and reintroduced by developers who could possibly save it from extinction.

However, the vast majority of open source applications cannot be run on iOS. So if you are an Apple user like myself, and would like to test out more open-sourced applications, it would be better to switch to android. If you don’t want to do that, the only other option may be to jailbreak your iPhone. Beware though, it does not necessarily mean that your phone will be secure from identity theft and viruses. As much as open source can be used for good, people can implant malware and bugs into the code as well. Another problem is that application updates which remove major bugs may be overlooked by users and they might continue to use the faulty versions. Also since there are a variety of open source languages, and different developers specialize in different ones, spotting errors in code may not be as quick and easy as one might think.

In short, if you’re looking for alternatives to google maps and FaceApp, there are good open-source apps available that won’t sell your data to advertisers. But does that guarantee that the app won’t be hacked? Not really.

Noor Us Sahar
Chatty tree frog. Currently studying Economics at Lahore University of Management Sciences.

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