Is the Skout case another warning shot for app safety?
The news that social mobile app maker Skout has had to temporarily suspend its teen community after rape allegations may come as a shock, but did they realistically have any other option?
Skout, billed as the “largest and fastest growing network for meeting new people and having fun”, allows users to make new friends, flirt or find a date.
The company made the decision to install a separate under-18s community after noticing there were many underage users in the over-18s community, with the goal of becoming “more than just a dating app”.
However according to the New York Times, in an episode which they describe as “the latest cautionary tale of using social networks to connect with strangers”, there have been at least three charges of rape, all involving adults posing as teenagers on Skout.
The company’s official blog rather coyly referenced this, stating: “In recent weeks, we’ve learned of several incidents involving a few bad actors trying to take advantage of some of our younger members”.
Quite rightly, Skout also said on its blog that “the safety of [its] community was #1 concern” and that it was working with security experts to create better verification and identification mechanisms.
Skout CEO Christian Wiklund stated that he believed adequate safeguards were in place, adding that because of Skout’s non-specific location tool, as well as the GPS feature being opt-in, it allowed users to decide if and when they should meet up.
“We want to do what is right, and that starts by doing everything we can to ensure the safety of our community”, Wiklund concluded.
Part of the problem could be with regard to the fact that many Skout users synchronise with Facebook.
Facebook has had problems of this nature as well, with the company acknowledging that children younger than 13 – the minimum age – use the site. Facebook permits a user to change their birth date on their profile “a few times”.
The majority of the initial comments underneath the blog appear to be from the under-18 community upset at how Skout has taken the app away from them with no notice.
These range from the light questioning of “why would you make all of us suffer for what only a few people did?” to the cries of “this is completely unfair” to the pleading of one user who won’t be able to speak to his girlfriend because he keeps her details only on Skout.
This case raises a number of questions - many we’ve seen before - around security and safety of apps and on the web. While better verification and identification mechanisms present a solution and a cover for those who may be deemed liable, what other measures might Skout employ against what are essentially ancient, darker sides of human nature?
Some might argue that education of the vulnerable is the best protection against these terrors. Who’s responsible for that?