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Yik Yak App: Anonymity vs Privacy

Use of a popular app among college students has some users behind bars and others questioning how anonymous the program really is.  Yik Yak, developed in 2013, provides users a real-time feed of comments from people around them geographically.  Simply type in your cell phone number, and share thoughts, jokes, questions, etc. with those around you.  Users may also choose to search other communities to see what people are saying in other places.

However, not everyone uses the free app just for fun.  Just this month, two students at two separate universities were arrested for making racially charged threats on Yik Yak. Northwest Missouri State and Missouri University of Science and Technology reacted quickly following threats of gun violence.  These instances weren’t the first time students have been arrested after posting what they believed to be ‘anonymous’ statements.  Fresno State was preparing to evacuate their campus following a threat there, but authorities were able to track down the suspect.  A sophomore at Charleston Southern University was arrested following a Yik Yak posting threatening mass violence.  Authorities notified all students of the threat via text, added more armed security on campus, and conducted dorm searches for suspicious activity.  A similar incident occurred at Emory University’s Oxford College in the same time period. This summer, a student at Brigham Young University-Idaho turned himself in following an investigation on campus after threatening Yik Yak posts.

 

Not So Anonymous After All

These issues aren’t just a problem on college campuses.  High schools and middle schools are also scrambling to deal with similar problems, as well as bullying via Yik Yak.  App developers responded by constructing virtual “geo-fences” around 90% of US high schools making it impossible to open the app on or near campus.  Yik Yak Co-Founder and COO Brooks Buffington said, “Let’s not waste any words here: This sort of misbehavior is NOT what Yik Yak is to be used for. Period. It is not condoned by Yik Yak, and it violates our Terms of Service.” Noteworthy changes to their privacy policy include:

  •  “We reserve the right to retain your Submissions, even after they have expired from view within the App or even after you have deleted them.
  •  Yik Yak may report to law enforcement authorities any actions that may be illegal, and any reports it receives of such conduct.  When legally required or at Yik Yak’s discretion, Yik Yak will cooperate with law enforcement agencies in any investigation of alleged illegal activity on the Services or on the Internet.”

The program also maintains a host of detailed user information for an ‘anonymous’ app:

“Yik Yak records a user’s IP address at the time of the app’s installation. In addition, Yik Yak maintains a log of the following information for each message posted:

  • 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
  • The user-agent string associated with the device from which the message was posted

Yik Yak will also require its users to provide a phone number when posting content to the app or if Yik Yak suspects improper activity.”

Popular social-networking site Facebook lost an appeal earlier this year after contesting the requirement by law enforcement to provide users’ posts and photos.  A Manhattan court ruled that the company cannot shield users’ data from search warrants.  This ruling was based on the Stored Communications Act.  Despite its reputation of anonymity, so far it appears Yik Yak is quick to cooperate with law enforcement in turning over personal data relating to threats.

 

Summary:

Yik Yak, a popular, free app used mostly by college students, allows users to post (what they may believe to be) anonymous comments to other users nearby.  This year, several college campuses have faced threats of violence by Yik Yak users resulting in arrests and campus disruption.  While there is an allure of anonymity, the app actually collects IP addresses, GPS coordinates, and user-agent string data.  The company also uses this information to cooperate with law enforcement when compelled or required to do so.

 

CIPP Exam Preparation

In preparation for the Certification Information Privacy Professional/United States (CIPP/US) exam, a privacy professional should be comfortable with topics related to this post, including:

 

Government and Court Access to Private-sector Information (III.A.b.2.)

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