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Contributing writer

Teen cyberbullying grows with ‘anonymous’ social chat apps

Mar 24, 20147 mins
Application SecurityData and Information SecurityMobile Security

Apps like Yik Yak, Whisper and Secret offer teens online anonymity, but experts say parents need to remind kids that the promise is bogus

While school districts around the country enact “zero-tolerance” policies against bullying, technology is making bullying easier and more seductive for teens, by promising them anonymity.

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And the unanimous opinion of several security and privacy experts is that there is no technological way to stop it. But then, the promise of anonymity is bogus, if law enforcement gets interested.

Not that any of the developers of free apps that create anonymous social chat rooms or message boards – Yik Yak, Whisper, Secret and others – are endorsing or even suggesting bullying. They all loudly condemn it.

The pitch from Yik Yak, a location-based app, is that it simply connects up to 500 nearby users (within about a mile) through GPS tracking on their mobile phones, to function as a kind of virtual bulletin board. It is also pitched at college students — those younger than 17 aren’t even supposed to be using it. According to the company, it has 300,000 or so users, the bulk of them on college campuses in the East and Southeast.

But, it hasn’t worked out that way, which doesn’t surprise anyone familiar with middle- and high-school students. As parents, teachers, coaches and technology experts have pointed out, there is no way to prevent somebody younger than17 from downloading and using Yik Yak. And they have been doing so by the thousands.

Ian Cleary, founder of the social networking site Razorsocial, said the ban is clearly bogus. “They want under-17s using it,” he said.

And too much of the time, the teens have been using it for cyberbullying or to make threats. If all publicity is good publicity, then it’s been a very good few weeks for Yik Yak, but the publicity hasn’t been positive. The Chicago Tribune reported earlier this month that, “at least four Chicago-area high schools issued warnings about Yik Yak in the past two weeks, with most principals asking parents to remove the app from their children’s phones and make sure the teens don’t reinstall it.”

One principal said the app was allowing students to “verbally abuse” other students, staff and faculty. He called them, “especially vicious and hurtful since there is no way to trace their source and it can be disseminated widely.”

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Threats made through Yik Yak also led to the evacuation or lockdown of schools in Marblehead, Mass., Decatur, Ala. and San Clemente, Calif. in just the past two months.

The company responded to the complaints in Chicago by shutting down access to the app across the entire city for several days with so-called geofencing. Cofounder Brooks Buffington told the Huffington Post last week that the company was working on geofencing all the middle and high schools in the city, and would eventually do so at schools all across the country.

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But Rebecca Herold, CEO of The Privacy Professor, said that would likely put only, “a tiny dent,” in its use by pre-teens through late teens. “Cyberbullying is a 24×7 problem,” she said, adding that so far, app developers, citing both a lack of consumer demand or any legal requirements, “have done absolutely nothing meaningful to build in any types of security or privacy controls.”

She said recently when she spoke to a group of app developers, one told her, “there are no laws requiring us to include security or privacy, so we sure as hell aren’t going to waste our time creating something that app users apparently don’t want.”

Herold also said that while there are tools available for parents to limit the use of TV channels or websites, “similar types of technologies for mobile apps are simply not being done yet, to my knowledge.”

Meanwhile, kids are savvy enough to get around geofencing of the school grounds. There are plenty of other gathering places, from playgrounds to boys and girls clubs and buses to and from school or athletic events.”

“Kids will always be able to get around it,” Cleary said, adding that if the developers really wanted to restrict an app’s use, they could charge for it, “and that requires a parent with a credit card to pay for it.”

“The boundaries of the digital communities are not dependent upon where the participants are physically located,” Herold added. “It is also a problem throughout the entire day, not just at school or school-sponsored events.”

Theresa Payton, former White House CIO and CEO of Fortalice Solutions, LLC, said she thinks the Yik Yak promise of nation-wide geofencing was, “a savvy move and shows that Yik Yak has a social awareness and conscience.”

But she said parental involvement is more likely to curb cyberbullying than efforts to block it through technology. She said the best defense is for parents to have a “digital talk” with their children before they start using mobile devices.

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“There will always be an app that’s new and hot that everyone is talking about that your tweens and teens will gravitate towards,” she said. “I would give them three rules that are very easy to remember: The first two are the ‘Grandmom rule’ and the ‘Bad Guy rule.’ Tell your kids to ask themselves if anything they do online would embarrass their Grandmom or give out information to a Bad Guy.”

The third rule is one cited by every other expert as well: Remember that anonymous doesn’t really mean anonymous. Payton, author of the recent book book “Privacy in the Age of Big Data,” said, “digital truly is forever. Just because you cannot see it doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist in a screen shot, database, the Library of Congress, which stores all tweets, or even the ‘Wayback machine,’ which captures pictures of the Internet each day as part of history.”

Indeed, in the Alabama case last month, police arrested a teen after they tracked a shooting threat made on the service to his phone.

And experts say it is unlikely that users would have a legal case to sue the app developer, claiming that he failed to uphold the promise of anonymity. “Most promises of anonymity have a loophole indicating that access may be provided to law enforcement or to appropriate authorities as required by law,” Herold said.

She said Big Data analytics, network logging and geolocation defaults within mobile devices, “all provide means for linking online activities with specific individuals in more situations than ever before. Anything posted to social media will never be truly anonymous.”

Cleary agreed. “You can never guarantee anonymity, and I’m sure that the terms and conditions for use do not guarantee it,” he said.

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And on the flip side, he said the policy banning an app’s use by those younger than 17 won’t result in any punitive action against an “under-age” user. “It’s designed to protect the company from liability,” he said.

Payton said users should not confuse privacy with anonymity, given the “digital tracks” that are left with every post. “Your phone or tablet have unique device IDs,” she said. “Your profile is often tied to an email account. Even the geolocation of where you check in might be collected. All of these data points can strip away your anonymity.”

She recommended what most teens would never take the time to do — “read the policy privacy statement of Yik Yak and other apps very thoroughly. You might be giving away more about yourself then you think.”

All of which brings it back to the very non-tech reality that communication and supervision by parents and other adults offers the best hope of curbing the abuse of apps like these.

“My 10-year-old is part of a virtual social network with all his classmates using Viber,” Cleary said. “There could easily be bullying with this app also, so it goes back to education of kids with phones.”