In this two-part series, we profile several popular messaging platforms, look at how anonymous they really are, and discuss what you’ll want to consider when interacting with them. In part one below, we survey the field and provide a guide for comparing the services. In part two, we’ll talk about the approach you can take to make mindful messaging part of your privacy practice.
They’re all the rage… so-called private or anonymous messaging apps like Snapchat, Secret, Whisper, WhatsApp, Wickr, Backchat, Ask.fm and (sneaking in just under the wire) Sneeky. Supporters tout them as being more fun, provocative and engaging than traditional social media. Some claim they enable more truthful interactions. Teenagers love them and early adopters within the tech industry are drawn to the promises of secrecy and discretion. Several of these new social media networks claim to be “anonymous” – but proceed with caution as there are a variety of ways this term can be interpreted (either colloquially, within a particular industry or according to the technical specifications and functionality of each particular messaging app). Also, the term anonymous is often used incorrectly and confused with terms like private, confidential or de-identified.
A recent Forbes article highlights some of the risks of assuming your posts on the messaging app Whisper are truly anonymous. The risks include the fact that your posts make become “viral” and re-posted on third party sites and apps; Whisper may soon use behavioral and location tracking to serve you ads; and the Whisper app already tracks users in order to monitor and ban negative posts.
Below we’ve defined some terminology, provided a methodology to review the app’s privacy and security promises and a brief guide comparing services. In this way, you’ll have a clearer idea of what you’re really getting into when you share your innermost thoughts on these messaging apps.
Defining “Anonymous Messaging”
Anonymous typically means not identified by name. In the context of a medical research study, for example, an individual’s involvement can be described as anonymous if it is impossible to know whether or not an individual participated in the study. Data are truly anonymous if no one can connect the data to the individual who provided it. No identifying information is collected from the individual.
De-Identified data is that which has been stripped or scrubbed of information which would allow the identification of the source of the data.
Private typically means personal and not publicly expressed.
Secret means without knowledge of others or confidential.
The Privacy Guru Anonymous App Guide
These messaging apps are marketed and branded to evoke a sense of secrecy, anonymity and privacy. Activate your privacy awareness before using these services – this requires going beyond the marketing speak. Make sure you see clearly before you share online, especially if the service promises and your expectation is that the content you share will be kept “private” or “anonymous.”
Not having your actual name connected to the service doesn’t necessarily mean it’s anonymous. There may be other ways to tie what you share (photos, comments, chats) back to your identity. Your circle of friends, email address, or cell number may be connected, if the service has requested the information, or makes sharing that information a requirement for participation on the platform. Also, if the service suffers a data breach, the information you submitted may be compromised. You may recall the recent SnapChat breach where 4.6 million user names and telephone numbers were disclosed. More recently, a security flaw was tracked in WhatsApp’s technology (which WhatsApp contends is overstated). Be mindful of the data security issues – do you trust these services to use best practices to protect your information?
Here’s a quick checklist of things to review and consider:
• Read the User Reviews (how do other users respond to the app’s functionality and promises of secrecy or anonymity?)
• Review the FAQ or Help section (often there will be a Q&A regarding how the service keeps messages anonymous, private or secure)
• Review the information required to create an account (typically user name and password, but some of the apps require cell phone number, email address or allowing linkage to an existing social media account)
• Review the privacy settings and optional functionality (for example, on Secret you can unlink your posts to remove any connection between you and your posts.)
We’ve complied some basic information and links for some of the most popular messaging apps to help you do your homework.
Tagline – “Snap a photo or a video, add a caption, and send it to a friend (or maybe a few). They’ll view it, laugh, and then the snap disappears from the screen – unless they take a screenshot!”
How it works: Snapchat is a photo messaging app where users can take photos, record videos, add text and drawings, and send the photo messages them to a controlled list of recipients. Pictures or “snaps” disappear or “self-destruct” after a few seconds.
Account creation: Snapchat requires a username, password, email address, phone number, and age.
Tagline – “Share with your friends, secretly. Speak freely.”
How it works: Post a “secret” and it appears in the feed of anyone using the app who has your phone number. It’s a way to communicate namelessly to your circle of friends. The app doesn’t offer usernames or profile photos to deter posts being traced back to you by another user.
Account creation: Phone number and email address required.
Tagline – “Share your secrets, discover new worlds, and make new friends.”
How it works: Pictures and comments can be posted anonymously to a public feed where strangers can see them, like them, and post a reply. Whisper assigns a non-unique display name to each user. The app suggests an image that matches your “whisper,” or you can upload your own. You can also send direct messages to each other. Using geo location, a “nearby” stream highlights whispers posted close to the user. The service discards user location data before storing each post.
Information required for account creation: user name and password.
Tagline – “Chat it up. The simple way to chat about what matters to you.”
How it works: Banter enables you to seek out public conversations about a particular topic with strangers nearby. The app also lets you “follow” other users you speak with often, and lets you send private messages. It offers both anonymous messaging and more public conversations with contacts from Facebook and Twitter. The service uses location data to create conversations for users nearby. If you connect your social media profile to user account, it will collect personal information publicly shared from the social media website. Contact list info is collected if you invite a friend. Public chat records are only available for 24 hours, though private chats remain archived for six months.
Account creation: Username and password are required with the option to add an email address.
Tagline – “The Internet is forever. Your private communications don’t need to be.”
How it works: Wickr allows you to encrypt and send audio, video, voice, and text messages. Users have control over who can read messages, where and for how long. No location information is collected. The service anonymizes (hashes) device IDs and aggregate usage data. When you delete a message, or when a message expires, “secure shredder” technology uses forensic deletion techniques to ensure that user data can never be recovered.
Account creation: A user name and password are required to create an account.
Tagline – “Simple. Personal. Real time messaging.”
How it works: WhatsApp Messenger is a cross-platform mobile messaging app which allows you to exchange messages without having to pay for SMS. Mobile phone number, billing information, and mobile device information are collected. It’s worth noting that WhatsApp was recently acquired by Facebook. It will be interesting to see how Facebook will integrate the service.
Account creation: A username is required.
Backchat (formerly Backdoor)
Tagline – “Half-anonymous conversations”
How it works: Designed by a 14 year old, this service allows users send anonymous messages to friends, with the recipient trying to guess the identity of their “secret messenger.” Free clues are provided to help reveal the sender, with additional clues made available via in-app purchase. You must be connected to someone through Facebook or Google+ before you can send a message. Account creation: User name and password required
Tagline – “Ask and answer.”
How it works: Ask.fm is a public question and answer app. Users can post questions and comment on user profiles with the option to be anonymous or not.
Account creation: The service requests your name, email address, date of birth and which country you live in.
Tagline: “Anonymously share photos directly with friends.”
How it works: You can post a photo, add a caption and share it with friends in your social media contacts. You can choose to only receive Sneeks from mutual contacts (friends that have your number, and you have theirs). You can also reply privately to your friend’s photos.
Account creation: mobile phone number, email address, password and linkage to social media contacts.
Competition in the anonymous messaging space is hot. Expect to see rapid changes, such as Cloaq, a platform that claims to “take privacy so seriously, its creators won’t reveal their names.”
While this is by no means an exhaustive list of current or upcoming anonymous messaging platforms, it should give you a guide to the prominent players in the field and help inform your decision whether or not to participate. In “Anonymous Messaging Round-up Part 2: Your guide to mindful messaging” we’ll offer some tips on using anonymous apps mindfully and responsibly.