Monday, October 13, 2014

Surprise! "Anonymous" Apps . . . Not-So-Anonymous

Yik Yak bills itself as a "local bulletin board." It allows users to post messages, and only people in a certain geographic area can see the messages. Users can up-vote or down-vote messages (too many down-votes and the message disappears), and even reply.

One interesting aspect of Yik Yak: it's anonymous. Well, sort of. Users do not need to verify their identities via email, register an account, or sign their messages in any way. You can just download the app to your phone and start posting and no one will know who you are - at least that's how it looks.

Apparently, someone posted this on Yik Yak in the vicinity of Penn State (aka where I live and teach) on Saturday night:

Screen Shot 2014-10-12 at 1.24.54 PM
(screen grab courtesy of Onward State).

Well, it turns out Yik Yak has a policy for such things:
Yik Yak may disclose user account information to law enforcement – without a subpoena, court order, or search warrant – in response to a valid emergency when we believe that doing so is necessary to prevent death or serious physical harm to someone (for instance, in cases involving kidnapping, bomb threats, school shootings, or suicide threats).
And, it turns out they store:
  • The IP address from which the message was posted; 
  • The GPS coordinates of the location from which the message was posted; 
  • The time and date when the message was posted.
And, within about 24 hours, we're at HUB Shooting Threat Suspect in Custody.

It's not just Yik Yak - see also, "the Snappening" in which a bunch of "sexts" were intercepted from Snapchat, the supposedly ghost-like messaging service. Don't be stupid - these "anonymous" apps have a way of becoming not-so-anonymous (especially when nudity or criminal threats are involved).

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