Tuesday 22 May 2018

Warning for parents as messaging service Kik is branded 'predators' paradise'

Matthew Horan (26) used Skype, Snapchat, Instagram and Kik, an anonymous instant messaging application
Matthew Horan (26) used Skype, Snapchat, Instagram and Kik, an anonymous instant messaging application

Niall Donald

IT has been branded the ‘de facto’ messaging app for child sex predators looking to groom underage children online by US law officials.

While most parents regularly check their teenage children’s Facebook and Instagram accounts, most would be far less aware of the risks posed by the messaging service Kik.

Launched by a Canadian tech firm in 2009, Kik Messenger has experienced incredible growth in a short space of time, and has gained more than 300 million users worldwide. It is estimated that it reaches up to 40pc of teenagers in the United States.

Unlike many other messaging apps, Kik has specifically targeted the youth market, and offers free, unlimited texting, along with games featuring animated characters and emojis. 

However, it is another aspect of Kik’s service that has made it popular with online predators looking to make contact with underage children. Kik allows users to send messages directly to other users, without first approving them on a friend or contact list.

This means predators can make unsolicited approaches to teenagers, without having mutual friends in common.

Worryingly, the app has no preventative measures in place to stop younger users from direct messaging other public group members – regardless of age.

Child protection experts across the globe have highlighted the sign-up process for Kik as being attractive to child sex offenders.  There’s no need to provide a phone number, Facebook link, or any other form of identity verification before joining the service.

There is also no age verification, so you have no idea who is on the other end.

Unlike on Facebook, only a username is visible on Kik – adding to the sense of anonymity on the platform.

Before this week, Kik has not featured extensively in online grooming cases that have come before the courts in Ireland.

However, in the US, Kik has come under increasing fire from law enforcement officials and parents’ groups following a series of high-profile abuse cases.

In 2016, it was criticised after 13-year-old Nicole Lovell, from Blacksburg, Virginia, was abducted and murdered by a man she allegedly met on Kik.

In an interview during a special investigation on CBS News’ ‘48 Hours’, a convicted child molester described Kik as a “predator’s paradise”.

Last year, CEO Ted Livingston said that Kik had launched “a new safety initiative, which is supported by a $10m (€8.1m) budget”.

“We have already increased our investment in moderation and are dedicating additional product development and engineering resources to this initiative,” Mr Livingston added.

“As a result, we have recently been able to conduct sweeps of more than 15,000 public groups, and terminated 4,000 of those groups after determining they were in violation of our terms of service.”

A spokesperson for Kik told Independent.ie that the company recently committed US$10m to safety and brought on a safety advisory board to assist them with their strategy.

"We take online safety very seriously, and we’re constantly assessing and improving our trust and safety measures. There are two ways we do this.

"One is through technology and constant improvements to the product itself. We encourage users to report content that they believe violates the Kik Terms of Service (TOS) and Community Standards. Users are also able to block other users they no longer wish to chat with or ignore chats from people that they don’t know. Actions are taken against users found to have violated Kik’s Community Standards and TOS, including removal from the Kik platform where circumstances warrant.

"The other is through education and partnerships with organisations that help adults and teens understand the challenges of today’s online landscape and how to avoid bad situations. For years, we’ve had teams dedicated to this, and we will continue to invest in those types of tools, provide resources to parents, and strengthen relationships with law enforcement and safety-focused organisations."

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