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posted: 3/29/2014 7:23 AM

Your secret is not safe online

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By Lily Hay Newman, Slate

NEW YORK -- There's a lot of news about Whisper, Secret and other anonymous social networks lately. Whisper has been around in various forms since March 2012 but started gaining momentum when it went free in February, Yik Yak started late last year, and Secret went live in the App Store at the end of January. Together they have prompted soul-searching questions about how much weed the employees of Rap Genius smoke and whether or not Gwyneth Paltrow is having an affair. More importantly, their spike in popularity raises questions about security, cyberbullying and harassment.

The real secret about all of these apps, though, is that they're nothing new. They're a repackaged version of the anonymous social channels that already existed on the Internet. What's more -- and you probably could have guessed this part -- they're not even secret.

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The services use your smartphone's location or contacts list to either find users in a set radius around you or to show you secrets from your friends list (anonymously, of course). You also see posts from a wider user pool, which are chosen by algorithms. The "secrets" are sometimes inspiring, but often veer toward criticism and shaming. In the months since Yik Yak launched, it has jumped from college campuses to high schools and middle schools, even though users are supposed to be 17 or older. And the service has played host to such extreme bullying in schools that the founders have already had to publicly address the situation.

"In a small handful of cases -- probably three or four -- we dealt with local authorities in terms of threats that have been issued on Yik Yak," one of the founders, Brooks Buffington, told TechCrunch. "A few of them actually resulted in arrests." Yik Yak has also geofenced the locations of almost 130,000 schools nationwide, so students can't use Yik Yak while they're on campus.

Over at Secret, posts have ranged from Silicon Valley gossip to poignant life observations and sad truths, from "I really hope the King IP is a flop. Their litigious practices against other game developers leading up to the IPO are atrocious" to "Today brings me one day closer to accepting myself as I am." The company likes to highlight positive content that gets a lot of "hearts" (the equivalent of "likes" or "favorites"). But bullying has apparently cropped up on Secret, too. A recent example involved a female engineer, Julie Ann Horvath, who had quit her job at the open-source hosting company GitHub; Horvath had had problems with one of the GitHub founders and his wife, and also felt uncomfortable with what she perceived as a culture of sexism among the GitHub staff. She originally planned to leave the company quietly, but after people began posting nasty rumors about her on Secret -- referring to her as "Queen" -- she began speaking out publicly on Twitter and elsewhere.

These and other incidents have given anonymity apps a lot of visibility and made them seem almost novel. But while the apps have updated aesthetics and functionality for mobile, in reality they are simply the next generation of the anonymous forums that have existed online for years -- a hybrid of the anonymous message boards at 4chan, the anonymous question-and-answer network at Ask.fm, and the anonymous confessions at PostSecret. 4chan and Ask.fm are both known for bullying and trolling; sometimes these situations get so intense that they spill from one site into the other. Apps like Secret are part of this culture now.

The fact is that anonymous apps are not particularly secure in the first place. If revelations about NSA surveillance and the ensuing flood of "privacy" products have taught us anything, it's that making something truly anonymous is really hard. If privacy protection is difficult to achieve for communications related to espionage or drug smuggling, it's certainly not going to be infallible on consumer products meant for sharing nonstate secrets.

Indeed, the idea that any of these apps are completely anonymous is dangerous. These companies know who you are and what you post. As Forbes points out, Whisper is open about the fact that it tracks users, and it's also considering targeted advertising.

• Newman is lead blogger for Future Tense, a partnership of Slate, New America and Arizona State University.

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