Colorado #Sexting Scandal: Keeping Secrets Through “Ghost Apps”

Controversy around a high school “sexting” incident in Canon City, Colorado has been proliferating the news as a police investigation has not only caused the cancellation of the high school’s football game (some of the players may be/are culpable in this on-going case) but also could result in potential felony charges.agDsGmy It has recently been revealed that students at Canon City High School have been exchanging hundreds of naked photographs of themselves, while successfully hiding evidence of such behavior from parents and the like (until now) through the use of “ghost apps.” This discovery has highlighted the challenges that are currently (or will be in the near future) facing schools, parents and prosecutors throughout the country as awareness of the prevalence of “ghost apps” being used to disguise student “sexting” spreads throughout all forms of social and traditional media.

#Sexting Problem in the United States:

anti_sextingStudies have found that roughly 30% of all American teens have shared a nude photograph of themselves with another teen. This sort of behavior has led many states to pass laws on “sexting” and to better clarify the potential consequences for teens (at least 20 states have updated their laws since 2009 to account for this youth “sexting”). While many states have passed laws with the view that teens should not be charged under child-pornography laws (which could require them to register as sex offenders), other states have laws with harsher penalties. According to an associate professor of law and psychology at Drexel University, David DeMatteo, this wide variation in state laws is a problem. “Sexting” not only has social consequences in “terms of humiliation and ostracism,” but it can also have legal consequences that differ throughout the nation. DeMatteo believes that “sexting” remedies should focus more on diversion and education rather than legal implications, such as teens registering as sex offenders.

Colorado law, in particular, deems “sexting” illegal, regardless of whether the student took and shared the explicit photographs voluntarily. However, District Attorney of Colorado, Tom LeDoux, declared he would only determine a judgment that required a culpable Canon City High School student to register as a sex offender if “absolutely necessary.”

#Sexting & Ghost Apps:

Students everywhere are using “ghost apps” to hide and share inappropriate photographs. So what are these “ghost apps?”

Screen Shot 2015-11-10 at 4.25.18 PMGhost apps” are smartphone applications that are disguised as normal apps but offer a number of different functionalities that can be hidden by a secret code. For example, some of these apps look like a normal calculator app, but once the secret passcode is entered, the app takes you to a hidden page where the user can store photographs, videos and all sorts of personal information.

These “ghost apps” have been around at least since 2012, when Snapchat’s popularity began to rise. Today, many of these apps are free and users are not shy about searching for and downloading them to keep “sexts” and other personal information secret. One example of a popular “ghost app” is Private Photo Vault, which has over 1,500 individual reviews and is the 28th most downloaded photo/video app on the App Store.

The current Colorado investigation has determined that at least 100 high school students used these “ghost apps” to exchange and store hundred of nude/inappropriate photographs with each other, including students as young as thirteen years old. As I mentioned above, the law in Colorado deems teenagers who send photos of themselves liable for possible felony charges. Sending photos of underage subjects, keeping such photos or sharing them with others is a “Class 3” felony in Colorado.

Recommendations for Parents:

A 2012 study found that more than 70 percent of teens have hidden online activity from their parents, which is becoming even easier to do today with “ghost apps.” Parents concerned about their children’s safety and their use of these apps can take certain preventative and proactive measures to better monitor their children’s activity. Below are specific recommendations for parents:

sexcalm_2990826b

  1. Research and keep up-to-date with new apps, especially those that have access to the phone’s camera.
  2. Look for application redundancy – i.e. two calculators on a phone.
  3. Use parental controls in order to know and have a say in what apps are being downloaded onto the phone.
  4. Have a conversation with your teens and tweens about “sexting.” Be open and honest with them about the implications of “sexting” and also let them know that you will be monitoring them (don’t do it behind their back – you will lose their trust).

#IS6621 classmates – I am curious to see what you think about this Colorado scandal and the revelation of “ghost apps” being used to hide “sexting” from parents. Do you think if parents take the appropriate actions, the amount of “sexting” in the United States will decrease? Or conversely, do you think that this phenomenon will continue to grow as technology advances and new and different “ghost apps” are created?

11 comments

  1. It’s interesting to me that “ghost apps” are becoming so prevalent today as a result of this case. Back when mobile app development and sharing was like the wild west (circa ’08), with hackers working tirelessly to crack iOS software updates to allow iPod Touch and iPhone users the ability to jailbreak their phones, ‘ghost apps’ as they’re now called were extremely prevalent. Cydia (the Appstore for jailbroken phones) came out in February of 2008 (back when I was in middle school and kids would pay me to jailbreak their phones for them…lol) and a number of apps designed for users with poor intentions were consistently among the most popular. They all stored encrypted files and the splash screen was usually a phone number keypad or a calculator (like with Private Photo Vault).
    What’s scary about these types of apps now is that they typically don’t have impressive security systems behind them. So regardless of what kids are hiding behind a seemingly harmless calculator, it won’t be stored with the same security and cloud protection as would a file on Dropbox’s or Google Drive’s servers would be. And since these files are often more personal/illegal/sensitive, the fact that a hacker will have an easier time accessing it is only more concerning.
    Another sect of apps similar to “ghost apps” that have seen their heyday were ones that did more than advertised. A famous example was an app that did something trivial like allow for Android users to make custom wallpapers. What users (and the ones at Google screening the source code) didn’t realize was that the app was a front for a bitcoin mining operation. Users of the app were reporting horrible battery life, and after an investigation, it turned out that the app would use the phone’s processor while the app was open in the background to help compute math problems like this http://bit.ly/1kL6Pnr so that the app developers could earn fractions of bitcoins from each phone with the app installed on it. (More on the fake wallpaper apps: http://bit.ly/1Qtquoh ). However, this type of hidden use app does have some practical (not just for kids trying to get away with sexting) and good use.
    Vodafone just last week released an app called DreamLab for Android that allows user to opt in to letting their mobile processors get used by research labs to help ender extremely complex graphics computations trying to understand how different cancers operate. Most let their phones join the effort while the user is asleep, and according to the researchers working with Vodafone, 100,000 phones with DreamLab installed can speed their data processing by 3,000 times: http://bit.ly/1NINhvQ

  2. Hi Jaime, yep I feel a bit out of touch (i.e. an oldie) as I have never heard about these ghost apps! I think your fourth point on how parents should address the rise of these private applications is the most powerful. I think it is important to realize that no matter what technology is available, it can’t replace face to face conversation. I think parents should realize their kids for the most part will always be ahead of them when it comes to new apps, trends and what other kids are using – that’s why it’s important to have an ongoing open conversation with them, rather than trying to chase the latest app.

  3. I heard about these apps not too long ago and didn’t pay too much attention as it would not really affect me. However, it’s definitely a huge issue among teens if they are using these apps for sexting. I wonder if someone can develop some sort of parental control technology, where the parents’s phones are internally hooked up to their children’s phones and can get an “activity report” consisting of basic activities their children are engaging in, such as which apps they have downloaded, how often they use each app, etc. Of course, this can put a strain on the “trust” parents want to foster with their children, so this is really a tough issue. For now, I think having open conversations is probably the best option.

  4. I think that due to the curious nature of this special age group, teens will always find ways to do what they want to do regardless of what stage the tech development are at. Today’s kids and teens are also under enormous amount of influence from media and the entertainment industry, and such influence normally tend to have a much stronger appeal to them than the education they receive at school and from their parents. The available technology just makes it even easier for them. Besides the suggestions you gave above, I think the most important thing for parents and teachers to make their communication more effective and relatable – they need to cultivate a sense of responsibility and make sure they understand all related implications and consequences. Besides that, I don’t think there is much adults can do, nor can they control everything- we’ve all been there. We’ve all received the lectures and know the big lessons, but we still make mistakes here and there and learn from trial and error, and I think that’s also part of the growing pains. One thing I am interested in knowing though – forget about the ghost apps, there are “official apps” such as Snapchat and Cyber Dust where all messages are self-destructive. They also claim that nothing is ever saved on any server. I wonder what the legal implications are for these softwares- evidence gathering would be rather difficult if people were to exploit such platforms for illegal activities. Do you think eventually intervention or precaution will come in place to prevent such problems?

  5. Nice post. I always think it will be difficult to keep teens from doing stuff with their phones. The only viable strategy is effectively communication with kids and helping them see the long term consequences of their actions for years to come. I think the real scandal is the illusion of control and privacy. It also does blur the child pornography lines. Can it really be child pornography when produced by the children themselves? It reveals a massive inconsistency in our legal system.

  6. I feel that teenagers will always find ways to do inappropriate things online regardless of the measures parents take to ensure they stay safe. How is a parent supposed to be aware of all these “ghost apps”? Once an app becomes too well known to parents, kids will simply find another one to use. Parents should simply discuss this type of behavior with their kids and help them understand the potential ramifications. As for charging teenagers as sex offenders, that’s just asinine. The laws regarding child pornography were put in place to first and foremost protect children, not punish them. As a former teenager, I can confirm that teenagers do really, really stupid things sometimes because they’re big balls of hormones who don’t typically think ahead. Would society really be made a safer place if we put these supposed “sex offenders” in jail? I think not. Being a registered sex offender follows you for life. No one should have to pay for a moronic mistake made as a teenager forever.

  7. Recently I’ve become aware that these apps are available for younger teens (or I guess everyone in general) to hide information from others. I will even admit that I feel some what out of the loop for having to find out about these apps from second sources. It’s incredible to imagine the various apps that are made available specifically for the need to hide risqué content. However regardless of parental involvement, I think individuals who participate in “sexting” will always find loop holes to hiding information. Yet teens should be made aware of the consequences of these actions and how inevitably everything posted online or between friends can never be permanently deleted.

  8. This was a nice post. Thanks for sharing. Your fourth recommendation of parents having open conversations with their teenage children about texting seems the most doable one. My experience has lead me to believe that children will always be ahead of their parents with newer technologies. They will find ways to hide sexting from parents. Your three other recommendations are valid ones but they will require parents to become micro-managers of their children’s technology usage. Many would consider micromanagement as good parenting with the advent of smartphones and the widespread use of social media applications. However, children may become more distrustful of parents in the process.

  9. Oh…my…goodness! I had no idea these apps existed, and as a parent, this freaks me out a little bit. However difficult it is to monitor and control activities of the younger generation, it is reason why it is so important for them to understand their responsibilities in using such technology. That news recently about high school students who were suspended over receiving unsolicited images from others was a great thing to talk about with our son. Better to not click, than to click and find out the consequences! Thanks for sharing this post! I think I might browse the Apple App store to see what apps have been downloaded via the family account, but not on my iPhone…

  10. Pretty scary this technology is readily available, especially to teens and the younger generation. I agree that parents need to have open and honest conversations with their kids to relay the life-long effects of poor decisions within the social media world.

  11. Nice post, Jaimie — very well researched. I, too, like your last recommendation for parents. The desire to send risque pictures is an interesting impulse in teens to me, I recently read an opinion by NYT journalist that sexting is a way for females to objectify themselves as a pre-emptive step to being objectified by others. Whether you agree with that opinion or not, I do think that there is more on a societal level to address the impulse to communicate with physical risks and vulnerability rather than those of a more emotional/communicative nature.

%d bloggers like this: