Popular Chat and Photo Sharing Apps

First of all, your children will hate me for this post, but rest assured: I have their well being at heart. What are Instagram, Keek, Kik, SnapChat, and Vine, and are they safe for use by young children? The short answer is, they are texting and file sharing applications, and absolutely not. There is simply no method by which the usage of these applications may be properly monitored, and these applications all expose your child to potential predators, and an overwhelming amount of highly inappropriate content. Almost all of them offer geo location (a geographical tag that contains the child’s latitude and longitude, and allows fairly precise location within five to ten feet) and location tagging, which make it extremely easy for predators to locate children. Coupled with the fact that these are generally selfies (images of themselves taken by your child), It offers would be predators a sort of digital smorgasbord down to location, name and friends faces and names. It is highly recommended that they not be allowed at all. It is worth noting, that of all of the listed applications, Instagram is the safest. Their moderation is higher than the others, and content of an inappropriate nature requires creative searching to locate. It can also be flagged, and is almost always removed if truly objectionable. But as detailed below, its cross posting on other sites make it dangerous as well. As always, the choice is yours as a parent, but when the stakes are so high and the consequences potentially disastrous, why would you?

Instagram: A public photo sharing application for Android, iOS and Windows devices which enables the user to upload photos from their mobile devices camera. Files are by default, shared publicly on Instagram, and may also be located/cross-posted on other social networks which enable you to search “nearby”. Using such a search, I quickly located four young girls from my own congregating, two of which had geo location on their photo, and all of which had “tagged” their location. There are privacy settings available within Instagram, but it limits your privacy to followers that are approved. While this is better than nothing, it requires you as a parent to manually approve each and every follower that requests to follow your child. For most children, this “breaks the usability” and often leads to dishonesty in which they create a separate account that they log into away from home, and log into the “dummy” account when at home. If you are going to allow your child to use this application, it is highly recommended that you require them to turn off geo location as well as insist that they not tag their location at any time. This application does not require a working SIM card. It runs on Wifi. It is advisable that parents review ConnectSafely’s PDF on Instagram Safety.

Keek: A public video sharing application for Android, iOS and Windows devices which enables users to upload videos from their mobile devices video camera. It is possible to block other users, and turn off comments. The problem is that anyone can subscribe to your child’s updates, view all of their posted content, and find out where they live using the built in Geo Location. There are presently no privacy settings available and there is no method by which adult content may be blocked. This app does not offer any parental controls. There is a great deal of pornography available (as I discovered within moments of signing up and browsing the application) on the application with no way to block it. Additionally, multiple studies indicate that the greater percentage of posters 16 and below are subscribed to by adult males over the age of thirty. DO NOT allow your child to use this application. This application does not require a working SIM card. It runs on Wifi.

Kik: An instant messaging application for Android, iOS and Windows devices which children use in place of SMS/Text Messaging. It has the same capabilities as SMS/Text Messaging, enabling users to share photos and text messages with other users. The application scans the physical devices address book and finds other individuals using the application. It has no parental controls, and no privacy settings. There is also a great deal of inappropriate content (Within moments of signing up and signing in, I received multiple spam messages, several of which were sexually explicit) sent in chat messages, whether you ask for it or not. It would be best to prevent your child from using this application. This application does not require a working SIM card. It runs on Wifi. Of its 15 million monthly active users, 57% are in the 13-24 age bracket. As a convicted child molester recently told CBS News’ 48 Hours, Kik is a “predator’s paradise.” It is extremely important to note that this app has recently been found to be heavily used by paedophiles and sharers of child pornography. Kik Messenger is frequently used by individuals who trade child pornography because it is free, simple to set up, easily accessible, potentially anonymous and allows users to share digital data privately. Soon after Raleigh, North Carolina  police arrested registered sex offender Thomas Paul Keeler II in March last year, they discovered he was an avid user of Kik Messenger, the Canadian communications app billed as the West’s alternative to WeChat. He was a member of more than 200 Kik groups with names like “kidsnbabies,” all dedicated to trading child abuse material, including images and videos of minors aged between three and 12 “engaged in sexual acts with adults,” according to a search warrant obtained by Forbes. In total, Keeler, who is awaiting sentencing after filing a currently-sealed plea agreement, shared and received such content with as many as 300 different individuals over less than a year, the government claimed.

Periscope: Periscope is a live video streaming social network which works in conjunction with Twitter. Meerkat and YouNow pose the exact same threats as Periscope, but as Periscope is the most popular, it will be the focus. Using Periscope, users can broadcast live with no delay to their followers using their smartphone. The app lets users stream both audio and video to their audience while allowing their audience to post feedback and comments. Audiences can watch and replay the video after the broadcast ends. Periscope is the most popular live streaming app in the world, despite having existed only since March of 2015. There are a few dangers with the use of live stream apps like Periscope. First, your child can broadcast live to potentially millions of strangers across the world. Second, those same strangers can broadcast to your teen. Many of the comments received are requests to young girls to show private body parts, using very explicit language. Third, though sexual harassment is a large problem with this app, because it is tied to a Twitter account, the possibility of uncovering your teens true identity and location is multiplied exponentially. Live-streaming apps like Periscope pose an elevated danger because they combine real time broadcasting, comment based interaction and the potential to determine physical location. These live streaming apps remain very popular with pornographers and predators wanting to pick up young kids online. The apps does not require a working SIM card and will work so long as the user has a WiFi connection. DO NOT allow your child to use this app, but if you feel you must, make sure it is never used unsupervised.

SnapChat: An instant messaging / photo sharing application for Android, iOS and Windows devices which claims to have auto destruct capabilities. In theory, an image is taken and then after the set amount of time (up to ten seconds) the image becomes inaccessible. The application is being used for sexting (trading of sexually explicit photos). The photos however, do not self destruct as they are supposed to. They are saved in a folder on the users phone, which can be hacked and the photos retrieved.  This is done on a fairly regular basis, and the photos of hacked SnapChat accounts are often posted online for all the world to see.  Additionally, it is extremely easy for users who receive photos to take screenshots before they become inaccessible, and then share these “private”, “self destructing” photos online. Make no mistake, it only takes one screenshot to destroy your child’s prospects for certain jobs, colleges etc., and for bullying to start at school. It has and continues to be a cause of suicide in teens. Lastly, there are multiple websites and Facebook groups that allow your child to share their SnapChat username to get more “friends”. The problem is that most of the registered subscribers to these sites and groups are adult males. There are NO privacy settings, and NO parental controls. It is strongly advised that you not allow your child to make use of this application. This application does not require a working SIM card. It runs on Wifi. If you insist on allowing your child to use this application, see ConnectSafely’s PDF safety guide for Snapchat.

Vine: (Now defunct as Twitter abandoned this app in favour of Periscope.) A public video sharing application for Android, iOS and Windows devices using the mobile devices camera. A short video may be taken, then shared to vine servers, and shared on Facebook. There are no parental controls available, nor are there privacy controls. Posters using iOS devices may be tracked easily using built in Geo Location. There are no methods to filter. There is a great deal of pornography available on the application with no way to block it. As with all of the above apps, parental attempts to control usage leads to dishonesty in which the children will create a separate account that they log into away from home, and log into the “dummy” account when at home. Again, an overwhelming percentage of older adult males are the primary subscribers to both young boys, and young girls.  DO NOT allow your child to use this application. The over availability of pornographic material is beyond parental control. This application does not require a working SIM card. It runs on Wifi.

Whisper: If your child has an application called Whisper or Secret, REMOVE it and DO NOT allow them to continue using it. Check for it frequently, and check their app store install history. Both applications are used to broadcast “secrets” such as crushes or bad things that your child may have done. The entire purpose of the applications are to broadcast secrets, and children may be tempted to fabricate very bad things in order to get “hearts”. Law enforcement is known to monitor these apps because of their nature, and your child may get more attention than they bargain for. They are supposedly anonymous, but they are NOT SECURE and they are NOT PRIVATE. They also have chat functions which predators use to convince younger children to meet up, pretending to be young and the same sex, or using photos of young opposite sex to lure children. These apps are NOT safe. The images are public and can contain secure location information. They are known to be used by child predators. Children are also able to find drug dealers using this app, as well as being exposed to absolute filth and pornography. There is no option on either of these apps which allows for safe use whatsoever. JUST DON’T.

If you have any questions regarding these applications, or how to change your child’s device settings to prevent geo location, feel free to email me using the “contact me” link. Be sure to include the device model and operating system. Also remember, that no matter how hard you try to protect your children, there is no failsafe. They will find a way around your guards and blocks to do what their friends are doing. The best thing that you can do is to stay involved, and actively keep an eye on what they are doing on their phones. Be sure to check out ConnectSafely’s guide to Children and Mobile Phones. Above all, teach them the dangers, and educate them on turning off location services, teach them to never film or photograph house numbers, license plates or other easily identifiable information. And for goodness sake, SUPERVISE them. Don’t just blindly trust. EVER. Maintain vigilance in checking their phones, as well as reviewing their app store install history. When it comes to your child’s safety, you can NEVER be too careful.

OpenSource Privacy

I’ve blogged a bit about OpenSource, and Linux – I’ve even convinced numerous friends and family members to join me. CentOS and Debian are my distros of choice, but for many of them, moving over from the Windows world; simpler is better. So I’ve set them up mainly with Ubuntu (shudder) and Mint. My own children use Xubuntu. I get asked a lot – “How do you get anything done since (insert overpriced product here) doesn’t run on Linux? Well, I’ve blogged about that too, HERE. But in the wake of US Programmes for spying on the American public, such as PRISM, just using OpenSource and expecting the lack of anything Microsoft to protect you isn’t enough. I’ve touched on configuring TOR, using Off the Record plugins for Pidgeon and other similar privacy enhancements HERE. But I’d like to take a moment to post on a basic level for beginners, about the very bare essentials in protecting their privacy. Simple changes that they can make without having to do any real major configuration to their system.

For this, you need to be a bit more clever, doing things such as changing your search engine, what browser you use, how you email and how you generally make use of any web based products. Read more about giving the NSA the finger HERE, and opting out of global data surveillance HERE.

The “Opting out of Global Data Surveillance” link should pretty much cover what you need, and for Linux users like myself, this specific LINK in the Opt Out information is particularly useful. But at the very basic level, even if you don’t feel a need to install, configure and make use of TOR, at the very minimal, use Firefox and make either https://duckduckgo.com or https://www.startpage.com your go-to for your searches each and every time you search. StartPage has the obvious advantage as it provides Google search results (let’s face it, we call searching “Googling” for a reason) but strips out your personal information so that Google never receives your IP or has a chance to laden your machine with cookies. That’s not to say that DuckDuckGo isn’t useful, but you will note a HUGE difference in the quality of search results.

As to email, while it does not have anywhere near the bells and whistles of Google/Gmail, I highly recommend Autistici-Inventati. Their service does provide all of the following, free, and naturally they accept donations to keep these services available. Find them HERE. The webmail is plain and uses Roundcube, but it’s free, private and secure. Couple it with Thunderbird or Earlybird (HERE‘s how you secure them), and it’s a win! Also, you can use K-9 on your Android phone for the secure email feature.

There are other email alternatives, of course, aside from even those mentioned in the Opt Out link. A friend of mine on Mastodon (more on this in a bit) recommends ProtonMail. I haven’t tried it to date, and as such, cannot comment on it positively or negatively. I do, however; respect his opinion and assume that if he recommends it, it’s worthy of said recommendation. You can read about his move to Linux HERE. You can also read his writeup on online privacy (in which he touches on ProtonMail) HERE.

Anyway, these are the surface level important bits gleaned from the Opt Out information. You can read more details and customize more of your desktop environment with apps and web services as you desire based on their guide. These presented here are just the absolute BASICS for preserving a shred of privacy in an ever increasingly watched, regulated and data mined digital world.

The last subject I’d like to touch on, is… well… a touchy one. Social networking. I know… you’re old and stuck in your ways. Facebook is just familiar and easy. Twitter is comfortable and doesn’t require any configuration. Well – that may be true, but they’re also undoing EVERYTHING that we are trying to accomplish in the entire preceding portion of this blog post. Facebook caches every single search. Whether for people or for products. Every page you like. Every status you like. Every news story that you read from their web app. Twitter does the same. Everything that you do on either site is monitored, collected, and placed into a nice little package that allows them to serve all of those ads that you see all over in the side bars, and in between posts. Your email… your birthday… all of your relationships. This data is all theirs. You gave it to them. And they USE IT.

There are two different options for Social Networking that I highly recommend. The first is older (if you don’t count OpenSource predecessors) and it is called Diaspora. It’s pretty much got all of the functionality of Facebook, but without the clutter, without the ads, and without fear of all of your data being mined and sold to any and all bidders. I’m personally on https://diasp.org username theophilus79@diasp.org, but they have a large pool of “pods” to choose from, and you can join any of them. They allow you to follow people from other “pods”, but they aren’t ruled by a centralized, authoritarian data miner. I know, it’s a pain getting your family and friends to switch, but persistence does pay off! The second is Mastodon I’m personally on https://mastodon.technology username theophilus@mastodon.technology – as my main account. It’s essentially a fuller featured Twitter, which allows more character input as well. Like Diaspora, it’s broken into “instances” and not all housed in a central server somewhere. You can join any instance that you like, and like Diaspora, follow people from other Instances. Again, no centralized authoritarian data miner granting you the right to use a website in exchange for all of your digital data. Both Diaspora and Mastodon have mobile apps that you can use. Both are well worth a try, and both will help you protect / control your own data. That isn’t to say that either is foolproof, but both by far outweigh the negative aspects of Facebook and Twitter.

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