Kik, the messaging app beloved by teens, has a child porn problem

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Kik App and Sexual Predators

Five-year-old messaging app Kik has a child pornography problem, according to experts. The app, which allows users to send text messages, videos and photos in one-on-one or group chats, has allegedly become one of the latest mediums used by sexual predators.

Matthew Chaney Walker, a 25-year-old from Baton Rouge, La., allegedly used the popular messaging app Kik to pose as a young girl and convince nearly three dozen minors to send him naked photos of themselves. Then hereportedly threatened to expose his victims, who ranged in age from eight to 14, to their schools unless they sent more, according to police. In one case, after a 12-year-old girl protested, he wrote, "Do u really want to be known as a Whore at school?"

Walkerwas convicted in a federal trial earlier this month. His is just one of many recent child porn cases reportedly involving Kik—and it's part of a growing shift in how this kind of illegal material is being transmitted. Several experts told Vocativ that peer-to-peer file-sharing networks like BitTorrentare still where most adult transmission of child porn is happening, but plenty of it is moving to apps. "In the old days, when they used to do it via email it was too easy to get caught," said Detective Sean Pierce of California's San Jose Police Department. "They're now using Kik as their tool instead of using Yahoo to email back and forth."

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It's a change facilitated by smartphones. Not only do they offer greater privacy, thanks in part to ironclad encryption that can foil even the FBI, but their ubiquity, combined with the explosion of messaging apps, provides potential predators countless more opportunities to connect with teenagers. "Child pornography collectors and online predators began exploiting mobile devices the minute that the devices became common among teens and pre-teens," said David Frattare, commander of the Ohio Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force, which handles child porn investigations for the state.

It's a problem Kik, which did not respond to a request for comment, has started to combat byimplementing technologythat compares photos uploaded to the service with a database of known child porn images—but, clearly, it hasn't gone away. And this technology won't catch predators seeking to convince underage children to create new pornographic images.

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"It seems to be the number one app we hear about in terms of complaints," said Frattare. "Kik is the app of the moment. It's what most teenagers are using to communicate, and that's obviously what's leading to us seeing a lot of problems," he said. In the last nine months, his team has received 37 tips mentioning Kik.

The company, which is based in Canada, claims 40 percent of U.S. teens are users. Kik lets people send text messages, videos and photos to each other directly or in group chat rooms. It's similar to Snapchat, except messages don't disappear by default after viewing. Users find people to chat with by importing contacts from their smartphone's address book or searching for a specific username.

Kik officially bans anyone under the age of 13, although there's no age verification, andsays anyone between the ages of 13 and 18 must have parental permission to use the app, but there's no required proof of that either. In fact, you can sign up anonymously without having to prove anything about your identity—and that's part of the appeal for those searching for child porn.

Transmission of child porn on Kik happens in three main ways, according to experts: adults send it to each other, minors share it with adults and teens swap it with each other. Now, the legal category of child porn is broad: it can include anything from videos of childhood sexual abuse to naked teenage selfies consensually swapped with significant others. A lot of the illegal imagery that is shared on apps like Kik falls into the latter category, according to Ju'Riese Colon, executive director of outreach at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, the clearinghouse for reporting and tracking child pornography. "Children, as they grow, they explore their sexuality," she said. "Technology is a way for them to do that."

But, often enough, as in Walker's case, adults obtain child porn on Kik, as on any messaging app, by taking advantage of this impulse for exploration. "An adult posing as a teen exploits a child through means of deception while preying upon the relative naïveté of the child," said Sergeant Aaron Whitt of the Anchorage Police Cyber Crimes unit. "The manipulation of the child ultimately results in the child compromising themselves."

There are also cases when teens willingly share images of themselves with adults, according to Frattare. "[One thing] we deal with now are kids who go onto Kik maybe misrepresent their age, maybe are unfortunately looking for companionship with older adults and then start to establish a relationship, share photographs," he said.

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Sometimes adults—typically men, although there are rare exceptions—pretend to already have compromising images of a teen and threaten to expose them unless they receive more.

It can be easy to find the Kik profiles of minors in the first place. Not only do many teens advertise their Kik usernames on their outside social media accounts, but there are websites not affiliated with Kik that are devoted to connecting users with new contacts. They essentially function as online directories of Kik usernames alongside a user's age, gender and interests. Some of these online directories have sections dedicated solely to finding users for Kik-based sexting.

Some of these directory sites are suggestively sexual—one in particular found by Vocativ analysts features a header image of a woman in a white lace bodysuit. Below this header, the site lists Kik username information for 13-year-old girls alongside 24-year-old women. The listings are user-submitted, meaning anyone can go to the site and promote their, or someone else's, Kik profile. Of course, these profiles listing underaged users could be posted by law enforcement or by adults either posing as minors or sharing information about minors that they've found on Kik. "Child exploitation offenders will use websites, bulletin board and forum posts to share information on victims or vulnerable children and adults who are active on these apps," said Frattare.

One entry found by Vocativ analysts, from an alleged 13-year-old girl's Kik profile, reads, "Im looking for fun and enjoyment. Something wild and make me w3t coz I'm alone and kinda h()rny right now. Trade pics or talk d1rrty are accepted so just kik." An ad from a supposed 16-year-old reads, "Looking to TRADE VIDEOS of hentaaii, beasty, Loli, and young ( 3-14 )."

Child porn seekers also gather in Kik groups, which are essentially chat rooms, the names of which can be found through various outside forums, some of which are on the dark web. "A lot of the investigations that we work involve either group trading among adults where adults have created a Kik group and feel comfortable trading either commercial child pornography with each other or child pornography sexting images that they've received from children," said Frattare.

Kik is by no means the only app being used by those seeking child pornography. Experts also mentioned Snapchat, Instagram and Dropbox as major venues for child porn. The most popular apps for child porn transmission are likely to change just as fast as technology and teenage trends.

"As more apps are developed, kids are finding them very quickly, and they just kind of hop around to different ones," said Colon of NCMEC. "So it really depends on what technology and what app they're using right now, that's probably where the majority of the child pornography is going to come from, because it's just where the kids are."

The post Kik, The Messaging App Beloved By Teens, Has A Child Porn Problem appeared first on Vocativ.

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