C. Warren Axelrod

Yik Yak Kiks Back—Privacy vs. Anonymity Revisited

In 1958, The Coasters sang the song “Yakety Yak,” … listen at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9xAi80ShG0I  The lyrics are about a domineering parent ordering a kid around, threatening him or her, and saying “Don’t talk back,” when the kid retorts “Yakety Yak.” In the 1950s kids seemed to show much greater respect towards parents and other authorities than today, which might explain the interaction in the song between parent and child and the parental response to any show of disrespect. One might also argue that the parent was overly domineering and somewhat abusive. Whichever view you hold, there is no question that messaging services such as Yik Yak and Kik open up a whole new area of personal communication and opportunities for abuse … and worse, much worse.

Yik Yak is a social media website that isn’t always very social. In a front-page article “Who Spewed That Abuse? Yik Yak Isn’t Telling” in The New York Times of March 9, 2015, Jonathan Mahler describes how the now two year-old social network, Yik Yak, allows anonymity on its website, which has led to nastiness. It happens that the founder’s parents came up with the name Yik Yak based on the song title mentioned above.

The NYT article on Yik Yak discusses various measures that high schools have implemented to block the app’s use on premises. The App Store also “requires” that users’ age be 17 and over versus the previous 12-and-over requirement. One of the creators of Yik Yak, Tyler Droll, claimed that “We made the app for college kids, but we quickly realized it was getting into the hands of high schoolers, and high schoolers were not mature enough to use it.” Right.  How many college kids are between the ages of 13 and 17 years old? And who determines the level of maturity needed to use such services? College kids can do really bad things too, as the recent Kik incident shows.

A year after the above article, The New York Times published another front-page article by Sheryl Gay Stohlberg and Richard Perez-Pena, “App Provides Anonymity to Teenagers, and to Predators, Too,” dated February 6, 2016.This article describes how two Virginia Tech freshman have been charged with killing a 13-year-old girl with whom they communicated over Kik. It seems that the lessons from Yik Yak have not been learned by Kik.

Kik is out of Canada (home country of Ashley Madison) and was formed in 2009.

According to the more recent NYT article, Kik’s “… main appeal is privacy and anonymity.” Here again we see the confusion between privacy, which is about protecting the data and physical rights of individuals where the individual is known, and anonymity, where the data may or may not be personal, but the owners or originators of the data are not known, although they may be knowable under certain circumstances.

One problem is that encryption is used for both privacy and anonymity, as well as for secrecy, where the owner or originator of secrets may be known, but the information is protected from prying eyes. For both privacy and secrecy, known authorized individuals are given permission and the keys to access the information. In anonymity, initially unknown individuals can communicate, although ultimately someone or other knows or gets to know the anonymous persons.

This is a very interesting and difficult topic that continues to confound vendors, users, legislators and law enforcement. I have discussed this issue in previous columns, and I recently presented a paper, Ensuring Online Data Privacy and Controlling Anonymity,” at the Stony Brook University CEWIT Conference, in Melville on October 2015. The paper is available through http://ieeexplore.ieee.org/xpl/articleDetails.jsp?arnumber=7338156&newsearch=true&searchWithin=%22First%20Name%22:c%20&searchWithin=%22Middle%20Name%22:w&searchWithin=%22Last%20Name%22:axelrod

We are far from mastering the ability to ensure privacy and yet allow for the approved disclosure of information about us under certain specified conditions. The technologies to effect such conditions already exist, but they are expensive and complex and require the support of the populace. Despite the horrendous stories of abuse and murder, we have not yet reached the tipping point, or so it appears, that will cause us to enforce privacy rules while allowing access by law enforcement to information and images of unlawful activities.

Author’s Note: It will be interesting to see how a request by the FBI to Apple Computer to decrypt messages on an iPhone belonging to one of the killers in the San Bernardino  massacre will work out … see “Apple ordered to break into San Bernardino shooter’s iPhone” by Kevin Johnson and Jessica Guynn in USA Today of February 17, 2016, available at http://www.usatoday.com/story/tech/news/2016/02/16/apple-san-bernardino-iphone-magistrate-order/80478844/#

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