Nicole Madison Lovell, a 13-year-old school girl from Virginia, chatted with an 18-year-old man over anonymous messaging app Kik before he allegedly killed her in January. Since then the app – which boasts some 240 million registered users and requires no phone number or name – has been the subject of scrutiny.
In response, Kik has handed over data to the murder investigation, updated its guide for parents, and asked the Apple Store to boost its age rating from nine to 12, with company representatives stressing teens between 13 and 18 should get parental permission to install the app.
Kik is, of course, not the only anonymous app hit with safety scares. Yik Yak, which allows people within a particular radius to create posts anonymously and upvote or downvote other posts, has faced controversy for hosting racial abuse and violent threats. Secret, an app where users can share their secrets anonymously, has also faced scrutiny over cyberbullying and security.
These might be more extreme cases, but can these anonymous apps ever be truly safe?
Stephen Balkam, founder of the Family Online Safety Institute, can see their value for teens looking to express themselves or explore sensitive areas such as sexuality. While Sonia Livingstone, a professor in media and communications at the London School of Economics, says that anonymity doesn’t inherently encourage negative outcomes. “It encourages intimacy and honesty as well as manipulation and nastiness,” she says.
Dealing with abuse
However, the design of some apps make them worse than others, according to Balkam. Yik Yak’s geolocation tool, for example, particularly concerns him because it limits user interactions with others within a 1.5 mile radius. This has the potential to create an online world for rumours and hate which can then spread offline in small communities.
Balkam believes in-line messaging, where users get prompts asking their age or pointing out features and security settings while they use the app, can help improve safety. He says reporting mechanisms and blocking tools should be easy to find, and that a team should be in place responding to those reports so they’re not just landing in a neglected mailbox.
Kik’s built-in help chat bot gives no help to questions about bullying or reporting users, instead offering random facts and jokes, but the app does feature a spam reporting tool that lets users send snippets of chat history as evidence for Kik’s staff to review and then ban users if appropriate. Yik Yak has a reporting tool that flags posts as spam, offensive, or targeting someone; posts that get enough complaints are sent to a human moderation team.
Human moderation is key according to Livingstone, but she says that it’s an expense some app companies might be unwilling to pay.
The anonymity of apps doesn’t mean that user data is not being sought. Kik and Yik Yak are free and let users hide behind a made-up name inside the app, but both ask for real names and email addresses when signing up. User data can be used to target tailored ads. While heavy investment has meant Yik Yak has yet to seek ways to make money, Kik has started taking some advertising.
The data-mining business model behind free apps needs to change in order to improve safety, says ethical developer Aral Balkan. When apps and other free online services depend on data to make money, Balkan says they’re designed to motivate as much use of a service as possible, and this means they encourage behaviours that are addictive – and not always positive.