Police trying to crack down on child pornography are scrambling to confront a new challenge: messaging services such as Kik and Snapchat that are popular among teenagers and have become a target for predators.
Waterloo, Ont.-based Kik Messenger, launched four years ago and has already attracted 200 million registered users, most of them teenagers. Its main attraction is anonymity.
Unlike some of the other messaging services, such as WhatsApp, which require a functioning mobile phone number, Kik users can sign up anonymously. That has attracted a subculture of bad actors looking to avoid detection or tracking.
Last fall, a court in Texas sentenced former school teacher Gregory Bogomol to 60 years in prison for preying on dozens of children via social media sites, including Kik. Another former teacher in New York is accused of using Kik to groom at least four teenaged boys and bribing them to send photos. In 2014, 45-year-old Kitchener man Robert Alexander Kowalk was convicted and added to the national sex offender registry for luring children and sending pictures of his genitals via Kik.
"A predator is the fisherman, and Kik right now is the pond that's stocked with all the fish," Lieutenant James Bacon of Fairfax County Police's Child Exploitation Unit in Virginia told NBC earlier this month following the arrest of a 14-year-old boy accused of creating a contest to generate child pornography.
Kik insists it is doing its best to counter the threat
The company recently announced plans to use Microsoft's PhotoDNA software that will premoderate any images users share inside the service and block any attempt to share child pornography, as well as report the offender to the police. It will also join the Virtual Global Taskforce (a partnership between businesses, child protection agencies and international police services, including the RCMP).
"Child exploitation is an industry-wide problem that has been around since the beginning of the Internet. Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, Snapchat, and many others face the same issues, sometimes to a greater extent," Rod McLeod, a public relations spokesman for Kik Interactive Inc., wrote in a statement.
"This was entirely a safety move, as the biggest risk was to users, specifically teenagers," Mr. McLeod said, adding there was no legal or other pressure to make these changes."We hope it'll improve the overall experience of the app by removing potentially dangerous users from Kik."
Snapchat, the leader among youth-oriented social networks and a key competitor for Kik, faces similar issues. The app's "ephemeral" disappearing message technology means messages last only 10 seconds before being deleted. Experts say that is almost perfectly designed for both the legal and illegal sex trade.
The New York Times recently profiled dozens of strippers using Snapchat to earn cash for sex shows, and in 2013, 10 teenaged boys in Laval, Que., used Snapchat to share images of underage girls and were charged with distributing child pornography. In addition to numerous allegations of revenge porn (users retransmitting sexual images without consent) there have been reports of underage youths performing sex shows on the service.
Experts such as Signy Arnason, the associate executive director of the Canadian Centre for Child Protection, thinks all social media and Internet companies need to take steps such as Kik's to help stem the tide of child sexual abuse online.
Ms. Arnason, who is also the director of Cybertip.ca, Canada's national hotline for reporting instances of child sexual abuse, believes online predators are more pervasive than ever. She founded Cybertip in 2001, and has seen a steady increase in the amount of illegal material reported online over the past 13 years. It received 40,000 tips from Canadians last year, up 80 per cent from the year before, and 94 per cent of which dealt with child pornography (and, she says, surveys have shown only about 10 per cent of Canadians even know about the tip line).
In 2014, Cybertip saw a 117 per cent increase in reports that people were sharing child pornography on mobile apps.
"This is how people are communicating, through apps," Ms. Arnason says. "Everyone is walking around with a mobile camera. You don't have to be technologically savvy in the least to video or photograph abuse and share it online. Once it hits the internet, forget it … child pornography spreads like wildfire."
According to Sergeant Arnold Guerin, an officer in the technology section of the RCMP's centre for missing children and part of the national force's response to child exploitation online, online predators will often share child porn with minors as a form of conditioning or grooming to lure them into performing sexual services. These predators are both savvy and ubiquitous, seeking out children wherever they congregate, making efforts to block the worst material online vital, Sgt. Guerin said.
In November, Kik closed a $38-million funding round, bringing its total raised to more than $70-million, mostly from U.S. venture capital firms.
Many technology companies try to grow so quickly they may not have a plan to handle objectionable or illegal content, said Kenneth Wong, a marketing and business strategy professor at Queen's School of Business. "You may not even think about morality – you're just thinking about getting numbers."
"Is your product positioned that people will pay but only for the absence of moral standards? Like most things, the high ground almost always requires a longer term vision," Mr. Wong added.
Boris Wertz, founding partner with Vancouver's Version One Ventures, would prefer to take that high ground. "As a VC, this is certainly of great concern and we at Version One would therefore never invest in a platform that is exclusively targeted at minors," Mr. Wertz said in an e-mail. "Kik and Snapchat certainly didn't start out as communication platforms targeted at minors (but rather college kids), but teenagers very quickly adopt these platforms once they reach some popularity."
Some other social media sites have begun cracking down.
In 2013, Twitter and Facebook began using Microsoft's PhotoDNA to target users sharing illegal and exploitative material. The software works by comparing pictures to a database of known images of exploited children, but unlike other versions of this type of web filtering software it can't be fooled by attempts to alter an image (cropping, redrawing or renaming).
"The explosion of user-uploaded content services has made this work more complex and more needed than ever," a Microsoft spokesperson said. Microsoft says more than 55 organizations use PhotoDNA technology (which is available for free as a cloud service to companies or law enforcement), including internet service providers, social networking services and law enforcement. Kik claims it is the first Canadian company to deploy the technology.
Japan's Line, one of Kik's competitors in the crowded messaging space, with more than 500 million registered users, says it does not do any content premoderation or filtering. Snapchat and fellow messaging services WeChat and Viber did not respond to inquiries about how they deal with exploitative images.
"It is our choice that we have not applied any such filters," Line spokesperson Mayo Katori said in an e-mail. "As Line is a messenger app that allows for enjoyable communication among family members and close friends, we believe we should not concern users' posted contents."
And yet, investors are lining up to back these sites. Los Angeles-based Snapchat raised more than $685-million (U.S.) in venture capital in recent months, valuing the startup at more than $15-billion.
"Some investors don't seem to care about criminal risk, don't think about it, or see it as a place, given the smaller investor pool, [with an opportunity] as opportunities for outsized returns," said Christian Lassonde, managing partner with Toronto-based Impression Ventures.
"I guess it all comes down to how flexible your moral fibre is. … I believe there are enough good deals out there you don't need to get your hands dirty."
With files from reporter Sean Silcoff