Researchers are Tackling Online Anonymity

Anonymous-ish app Yik Yak isn’t dead yet, but there are indications that it may be headed in that direction. We think they’ll survive in some form, but the changes they have made since they launched in 2013 speak to to the struggle they have had to outlive their initial burst of popularity.

Rutgers Yik YakWhen Yik Yak started out, all posts were anonymous. The location of the user who posted was and is central to how Yik Yak works – each Yik Yak “community” is defined as all user within a certain radius, regardless of whether they know each other. Since the initial iteration of Yik Yak was totally anonymous, any user’s identity was impossible to pinpoint unless it was offered.

A lot has changed since 2013. Actually, a lot has changed in 2016.

In March, Yik Yak introduced optional “handles” or user names. With that update, users were required to select a user name. The name could be their real name or something else, but they were not required to use that name when posting. From what we saw, few people both chose their real name and used it when posting, so Yik Yak continued to be mostly anonymous.

In April, the company introduced messaging. The world didn’t need another messaging app, but apparently the theory was that now that you have an identity, someone who likes your posts might want to privately reach out to you. We have no idea how much traction they got with messaging.

In August, the company took its latest step in ditching full anonymity, requiring users to post with their handle. Yik Yak is anonymous no more, although people still might not know who is behind your screen name.

Now researchers are digging in to just how anonymous users are, even when they don’t use their real name. Professors at NYU Tandon School of Engineering and NYU Shanghai are presenting research this week focused on Yik Yak’s GPS system. By using Yik Yak and tricking their own devices into thinking they were at various locations on a campus, they were able to use machine learning to pinpoint with great accuracy which building Yik Yak posts were coming from.

By their logic, if their machine learning techniques were able to pinpoint the location of posts, identification of actual users will not be far behind.

We understand that there are some benefits to posting anonymously, including enhanced freedom of expression. We caution social media users, however, that it is inevitable that technology will catch up at some point, and the perceived “safety” of anonymity will disappear.

Whether social media users, especially young ones, are posting online suing their real name or anonymously, there is always the possibility that your identity will be found out.

 

 

If your teen or tween is active online and you are having trouble keeping up, we can help. We respect your kids’ privacy and give you the tools you need to be a better digital parent. The ThirdParent initial audit is now FREE (previously a $49 value). Ongoing monitoring is $15 per month and you can cancel at any time. Click here to sign up today!

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Teens and Anonymous Social Media Accounts

We wrote a post back in 2014 titled, “Why Is My Teen Using a Pseudonym on Social Media?” It was true then, and it’s true now, that some internet users of all ages use anonymous accounts. Some have nefarious reasons (trolling, cyberbullying, illegal or subversive activity), and some are completely harmless and just want to speak their mind or lurk in peace.

anonymousYesterday, a visitor to our website left the comment below in response to the post.

“It’s actually largely inappropriate for teenagers to be using public social media *without* using pseudonyms. Few adults would wish to be held accountable and judged for their thoughts and actions while they were teenagers, but making public posts to the Internet under your real name in fact creates a permanent record.

So teens should be taught to always use pseudonyms as part of learning to use the Internet in a safe and responsible manner.”

The commenter, while anonymous, appears to be affiliated with an organization that is dedicated to defending civil liberties online. We’re big fans to teens having civil liberties, including the freedom to post publicly on age-appropriate online forums.

In short, we disagree with the commenter. Here are some of the reasons:

We are doing a disservice to teens if we don’t stress the importance of having a positive online identity. College admissions officers (possible) and future employers (probable) could be checking a teen or young adult’s digital footprint to gain insight into character and qualifications, and they aren’t just looking for negatives. In fact, according to a recent survey, 38% of employers who check social media have found something that makes them more likely to hire a candidate.

According to the same survey, researchers found that it is increasingly a red flag if recruiters can’t find someone online. It is either a signal that the person has something to hide, or a sign that the person is digitally incompetent or unconnected. You don’t want your teen to come off as being either.

Anonymity breeds bad behavior. A study last year found that anonymous internet commenters were twice as likely to use “language that was vulgar, racist, profane or hateful.” Of course, most teens won’t do that, but when you believe you’re anonymous, you might give into the temptation to unload on someone or use inappropriate language.

There is a chance that he will be found out. If your teen is conducting himself online with the belief that nobody knows who he is, and he is found out, that opens up a whole new can of worms. There are hackers out there who are happy to do it just for kicks, or because you’ve posted something that they disagree with. It is called doxing, and it happens.

It’s called social media for a reason. Teens are so active online because that it increasingly how they connect and share with their friends and make new ones. It’s pretty difficult to meaningfully connect with anyone when you’re anonymous.

It is possible to teach teens to respect others and act appropriately in the real world. It’s also possible to do the same with their online activity, and teach them how to stay safe. Rather than hiding behind a pseudonym, let’s teach them to do just that. As parents, it’s our job.

 

 

If you are worried that your teen or tween is at risk, we can help. The ThirdParent initial audit is now FREE (previously a $49 value). Ongoing monitoring is $15 per month and you can cancel at any time. Click here to sign up today!

 

 

Contact ThirdParent any time for help and resources for monitoring child and teen internet activity.

Work at a high school or college? We have custom solutions for monitoring dangerous or inappropriate activity. Learn more.

 

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More Problems with the After School App

after-school-appWe wrote last week about the anonymous After School app that caters to high school students. We have a number of issues with the app, not the least of which is that anonymous communications tend to be very popular with cyberbullies.

In the article last week we focused on, among other things, the fact that I was able to sign up to the page of a local high school despite the fact that the app is supposed to be for students only.

In any anonymous community, one might assume there is a risk that other members of the community aren’t who they claim to be. In the worst-case scenario, some users might be cyberbullies or worse, predators looking to do real harm. That risk has been downplayed by the reviews of the After School that we’ve seen. For example, in their review of the app, Common Sense media writes:

“The age controls are tight, too, which not only means that non-teen predators will have difficulty getting in, but it also means parents can’t monitor teens’ postings themselves.”

That seems to be consensus – that it is nearly impossible for non high school students to join a school network. That was not the case in our experience. After I selected the local high school from a list, the app asked to connect with Facebook to verify student status. I didn’t lie about my status, just clicked “OK” and was quickly connected.after-school-facebook

That brings up a second issue with the app. While After School did make the following claim, “This does not let the app post to Facebook”, it said nothing else about what else it might do with my Facebook information. I returned to the app the following day and noticed that After School has posted for me, and included my first name and my Facebook profile photo. I didn’t sign up for that, and didn’t know it was a possibility.

Our third issue with the app is a more minor one. Users who want to access the “mature” content on the app are supposed to scan their student ID card to verify that they are an upperclassman. I have a son who is 17-year old high school student at a large school. I asked him to try it and the scan was not compatible with the code on his student I.D. Also, if he was able to scan it, there is no way to verify that it was his I.D. he was scanning.

Since that app’s introduction last year, they have made some positive changes. Some of them are described well in an article this week at ChicagoNow.

We have a number of questions:

  • In theory, how is the Facebook link supposed to confirm high school student status?
  • Why didn’t it work in my case?
  • Shouldn’t After School clearly disclose if they are going to use my Facebook info and post for me?

For now, we strongly caution parents to keep their teens off After School. We’d like to see some answers.

 

 

 

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After School App | Anonymous and Problematic

after-school-appWe first took a look at the anonymous After School app last year. At the time, we didn’t write a review for two reasons, the first being that it didn’t seem to be taking off nationally. The second, less good reason was that we couldn’t log into the app.

The app itself claims to be only for high school students, and if I remember correctly, you needed a .edu email address to log in, which I obviously don’t have. I deleted the app and promised myself that I’d come back to it if there was an indication that it was taking off.

This morning there’s a new buzz around the app thanks to an excellent Washington Post article titled Millions of teens are using a new app to post anonymous thoughts, and most parents have no idea. We decided to take another look.

If you’re a parent, the first paragraph is all you need to know about whether the After School app should be on your teen’s phone:

“Millions of teenagers in high schools nationwide are using a smartphone app to anonymously share their deepest anxieties, secret crushes, vulgar assessments of their classmates and even violent threats, all without adults being able to look in.”

after-schoolWe’ll have a full review in the upcoming weeks but thought we’d focus on the last part of the quoted paragraph above – “without adults being able to look in”.

After re-downloading the app, I got a message saying that is it only for students and offered a list of local schools. I chose the local high school and was directed to connect to my Facebook account to confirm that I am in fact a student. I clicked the button to connect to Facebook and after a few moments was a proud member of the Hunterdon Central Regional High School After School community. I’m not a high school student and there is no information in Facebook or elsewhere that indicates I am one. This looks like faux verification to us.

That’s kind of a big deal. The teens interacting on the app assume that they’re talking to their peers. As it turns out, they could be talking to anyone – including a predator. It’s not safe.

What has improved from the earlier iteration of the app is that they do a better job gating the adult content. The default setting is that content that is sexual or drug related is blocked from view. You need to scan the barcode (or something) on your school ID tp unlock the adult content. We’re not sure how this works – more on that later.

after-school-adult-content

As we said, you can look for our full review in the coming weeks, but if your teen is already using After School, you might want to point out that everyone on there may not be who they are pretending to be.

 

 

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Ossining School Shooting Threat on Yik Yak Leads to Felony Arrest

The latest teen to be arrested after posting a school threat on Yik Yak is seeing first hand a couple of things that every Yik Yak user should know to be true. This is especially true for teens:

  • yik-yak-logoYik Yak is not really anonymous, especially if you post something illegal
  • Law enforcement will go a long way to find you, even if you take extra steps to cover your tracks

Yik Yak is an anonymous, location-based social media app that allows users to post whatever is on their mind. Those posts are seen by any other Yik Yak users within a 1.5 – 5 mile radius, making users in that area your “network”. Yik Yak is ideally suited to schools, where all students who download the app create a school centric network. Most posts are harmless; some are not.

The teen in this case is a 16-year old from Ossining New York, who back in September allegedly used Yik Yak to post a threat that he would shoot up his high school. Last week, after an eight-month investigation that involved local and state police as well as the FBI, the student was arrested and charged with making a terroristic threat – a felony.

Normally when a school threat is made on Yik Yak, a predictable series of events occurs:

  1. The school reports the threat to local police
  2. The police contact Yik Yak staff, who are very quick to cooperate and hand over the anonymous user’s IP address
  3. The police, armed with the IP address, contact the user’s mobile phone company and get the user name and address
  4. The user is arrested, often within 24 hours, sometimes the same day

In this case, the student must have gone to extraordinary lengths to cover his tracks, to no avail. According to Ossining Detective Lieutenant William Sullivan:

“It took so long because the investigation led overseas, and that’s why the FBI was involved. It was difficult because there were many different shields, and that led to dead ends. It shows that we work as a law enforcement team.”

Without even considering cyberbullying and other negative behaviors one can witness on Yik Yak, the messages here are pretty clear. First, making a school threat at any time, even in jest, is a bad idea. Second, assuming that anonymous apps or networks will protect your identity is a bad idea. It doesn’t happen that way. Third, while most Yik Yak posts are harmless, the downside for teens posting the app can be so profound that it’s a good idea to not allow high school students to download the app in the first place.

Take a moment to ask your teen if he is using Yik Yak or another anonymous app. If you don’t like the answer you get, you can check the phone for yourself.

 

 

Contact ThirdParent any time for help and resources for monitoring child and teen internet activity.

Work at a high school or college? We have custom solutions for monitoring dangerous or inappropriate activity. Learn more.

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Secret App Shuts Down, Exposing a Risk for Anonymous Users

The Secret app is shutting down, and given its rocky history, won’t be missed by many despite having amassed over 15 million users at one point. We have a question, as did at least on other person that we say online yesterday:

We’ve tested and used the Secret app and can attest to the fact that many of the posts on there are content so vile and inappropriate that there’s no way the people making the posts would do so if their real name was attached to them. Secret is not much different from other anonymous apps and networks in one regard – people are emboldened by their anonymity, and post with wild abandon. It leads us to believe that many think there is no chance their identity will ever be revealed. To date, that has been true except in cases where users ran afoul of the law.

What if that anonymity is not guaranteed? One of the founders, David Byttow, wrote a post on Medium yesterday announcing the shutdown and the reasons behind it. In the post, he included the following:

“…we’re taking steps to permanently delete all content and data imminently.”

secret-logoIf that is true, then Secret is doing the right thing respecting the privacy of their users. What if they didn’t? From Secret’s Terms of Service:

“We change these Terms of Service every so often. If we make changes, we will notify you by revising the date at the top of the policy and, in some cases, provide you with additional notice (like on our homepage or over email).”

They have cautioned users from day one that their Terms of Service could change at any time. In terms Secret’s use of the data, from their Privacy Policy:

“The types of information we may collect include your email address, your mobile phone number and any other information you choose to provide. When you request that the App find your Friends, we also collect certain information from your contacts on your mobile device or from Facebook…

We may also share information (which may at times includes personal information) about you as follows…with vendors, consultants and other service providers”

It does not state that Secret will or ever had the right to share your data with advertisers or other partners, as is the case with other social platforms.

What if, instead of shutting down, Secret had decided to change its Terms of Service in a way that enabled it to sell your data to third parties? From Facebook’s Terms of Service:

“You give us permission to use your name, profile picture, content, and information in connection with commercial, sponsored, or related content (such as a brand you like) served or enhanced by us.”

While it doesn’t look like that is happening here, all users of anonymous apps should be very wary of what might happen in a worst case scenario. A subpoena or warrant from law enforcement is one such scenario, although most anonymous posts do not depict illegal acts. Could a platform that is failing and desperate for cash be another such scenario? It could be.

Caution is warranted, even when you’re posting anonymously. The truth can be very inconvenient in the light of day.

 

Contact ThirdParent any time for help and resources for monitoring child and teen internet activity.

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Anonymous Yik Yak is Worse Than Secret For a Reason

Two “anonymous” apps, Secret and Yik Yak, launched in October 2013. We put the word “anonymous” in quotes, because depending on the circumstances, neither are really anonymous.

Once each stated becoming popular, they both came under fire for being in varying degrees sinister, but from different camps. Secret took heat from the Silicon Valley crowd, who have been scandalized by exposed trade secrets and the like.

secret-app

Yik Yak continues under a barrage of much deserved criticism from schools, the media and parents for school threats of violence, cyberbullying, teacher bashing and underage tales of drugs and alcohol.

yik-yak-cyberbullying

Yik Yak’s popularity has never been greater, particularly with teens, despite efforts by the company to shut the app down at high and middle schools. Secret, on the other hand, relaunched with a new design and use case last week after failing to maintain its early momentum.

Is there a reason why one app is soaring while the other tries to find its mojo, despite both having raised large piles of money from investors? We think so, and we think the reason is directly related to the reason why Yik Yak is the most negatively impactful app for teens at the moment.

The difference is simple – with Yik Yak, your audience is the people within X miles of you, regardless of whether you know them personally. In fact, even of you do know them personally, you will be no more or less connected to them than you are to complete strangers in your area. With Secret, your audience is determined by the friends (and friends of friends) in your phone’s address book who also use Secret.

If Yik Yak, Secret and the like were being used mainly for harmless fun, made a little more edgy by the fact that you don’t really know who is doing the posting, a network like Secret’s that is connected to your real contacts would be more valuable. We would argue that many, many teens who are using Yik Yak for nefarious purposes want to be as distanced as possible from their true identity and their real friends – because they’re up to no good.

The age restriction on Yik Yak is 17+, but most high schoolers ignore the age limit. We are strongly of the opinion that Yik Yak is a bad idea for high school and middle school students. Parents should guide behavior accordingly.

 

Contact ThirdParent any time for help and resources for monitoring child and teen internet activity.

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Living Proof That Teens Shouldn’t Use Yik Yak

The Yik Yak app is pretty terrible from a parent’s point of view, and from ours. It is an anonymous, location-based message board that is used by (mostly) high school and college students to vent, talk trash and cyberbully. The positive use cases are fairly limited.

yik-yak-logoIts use by teens has led to, according to my very unscientific count, over a dozen arrests this year alone, and I have the feeling that it could also pose a risk for parents of teens who are using it. I’m going to give you a real life example, with real names and locations left out.

Last weekend, a friend of mine and his wife were out of town – out of the state for a matter of fact – with no chance of coming home unexpectedly. Alone at home was their 16 year-old (with a family friend looking in from time to time).

On Friday night, the girl told the family friend that she was going to sleep at a friend’s house, didn’t, and called some friends to come over for a party. Around 9 PM, an acquaintance posted the following on Yik Yak: “Party at 519 Fictional Road” (the exact location of the house, in a small town) without the knowledge or permission of the teen host.

You can guess what happened next. More people showed up than expected or were invited, some things got broken, and luckily the teens were able to shut the party down before anything really bad happened. After the teens shut it down, turned off the lights and hid inside, random people kept showing up at the “party”.

Since I live within 5 miles of this friend, I knew about the party before he did.

The thing about Yik Yak is that in addition to being anonymous, there is no “friend” or “follower” structure. When you post something, it is visible to every Yik Yak user within a 5-mile radius.

Every user.

The community on Yik Yak is mostly high school and college students, but that Yak could have been seen by adults of any type – axe murderers, sex offenders, drug dealers or anyone else. If something bad happened, I wonder what the legal liability would have been for the parents of the teen who posted the unauthorized “invitation”.

There is a simple solution for parents of teens:

  1. Pick up your teen’s phone
  2. Look for the Yik Yak App (Yak logo above)
  3. If it’s there, tell him or her to delete it and have a nice chat about risk and responsibility

For Yik Yak, a simple solution does not exist. The app as it currently functions enables all kinds of bad and risky behaviors. They should voluntarily shut it down. If anyone from Yik Yak reads this and wants to comment, they should reach out to us here.

 

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Yik Yak Blocks Its App at High Schools By Geo Fencing | Or Do They?

yik-yak-logoYik Yak, the anonymous app that uses a phone’s GPS system to act as any local school’s anonymous message board, started causing problems at high schools soon after it launched in late 2013. In our review in February of this year, we wrote:

“Another feature of the app adds to the virality of extremely outlandish or hurtful posts – users can upvote (or downvote) posts, and posts can be sorted based on popularity, all of which can serve to light a fire under the worst type of content and commentary.

Just this week, Yik Yak has been blamed for a school shooting threat in Alabama and an outbreak of cyberbullying at a Kansas School. In neither case have any users involved been identified.”

In the case of Yik Yak, the founders were not tone deaf to the publicity of problems being caused by the app, and in March one of the founders granted an interview to TechCruch, addressing the issue.

“To implement [high school]…bans nationwide, the team approached third-party data provider Maponics in order to license GPS data for a total of 100,599 public schools across the U.S. as well as 28,111 private schools.

“They have 85 percent of the GPS coordinates for American high schools and middle schools,” says [Yik Yak founder] Buffington. “The message [to students where the app is blocked] is something along the lines of, ‘it looks like you’re trying to use Yik Yak on a middle school or high school grounds. Yik Yak is intended for people college-aged and above. The app is disabled in this area.’”

This sounds like a great response, but that was six months ago and we are still seeing weekly occurrences of Yik Yak causing problems in high schools. To wit:

Yik Yak bullying leads districts to ban app – Sept. 29, 2014

Yik Yak app leads to trouble for high schoolers – Sept. 25, 2014

Yik Yak app leads to arrests, raises concerns of cyberbullying – Sept. 24, 2014

yik-yak-drugs-homophobicBased on those three headlines from the last week, it’s hard for us to believe that Yik Yak has actually geo fenced 85% of U. S. high schools and blocked that app for those students. As a matter of fact, our offices are about a mile from the local high school, and Yik Yak is positively thriving, complete with content that would make most parents blush.

Maybe Yik Yak will drop us a line on this.

If you’re the parent of a teen, the chances seem pretty good to us that there is an active Yik Yak community at your kids’ school. If you see the Yik Yak app on your teen’s phone, take a look. If you don’t want to pry into your teen’s phone, feel free to contact school officials and ask them if they’ve taken steps to block the app. According to Yik Yak, they can do so if it hasn’t been done already – school officials can email yikyakapp@gmail.com to have it done manually.

We hope that Yik Yak doesn’t believe that they’ve solved the problem yet. They haven’t.

 

 

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Proof Positive That Even 4chan Is Not All Bad

4chan logoThe internet is a big place with a lot of options for tweens and teens. Of course we’re in the business of giving parents advice on how to keep kids’ internet activity safe and responsible, and we are quick to caution that there is a lot of cyberbullying, hateful and adult content on anonymous social network 4chan.

4chan’s rules regarding permissible content are pretty straightforward:

“Do not upload, post, discuss, request, or link to, anything that violates local or United States law.”

That’s it. Because it has so few restrictions and so little moderation, it attracts some of the worst internet actors. It also hosts some content that is very good, and quite positive. Consider the following.

red-eyes-black-dragon I don’t frequent 4chan, but I am a Reddit user, and the above post made it to the front page of Reddit today.

Reddit and 4chan are both not safe for kids, and teens should tread very carefully.

The above post, touching as it is, highlights the fact that parents need to be careful not to paint large parts of the internet with one brush. Yes, with fully anonymous platforms, cyberbullies and trolls can remain nameless, but there is a flip side. From a post by 4chan founder Chris Poole on the dangers of anonymity:

“What I’ve observed is the opposite—that anonymity facilitates honest discourse, creates a level playing field for ideas to be heard, and enables creativity like none other.”

Even with the bad, there are a lot of good things out there.

 

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