06.14.12

Skout Website Case Suggests How Adults Could Use Apps to Rape Kids

Skout was a flirting app for grown-ups. Then it opened up to teens. Then three kids allegedly got raped, leading the site to shut down. Dan Lyons on a cautionary tale about creepy new mobile apps, and Silicon Valley start-ups so keen to make a buck that they may not see the risks.

It’s no wonder that online marketers are dying to reach out to kids and teens. They’re impulsive buyers. They influence the buying decisions their parents make on big-ticket items like cars and vacations. They’re careless about privacy, and share too much about themselves. And if you can hook them when they’re young you can build a strong sense of brand loyalty. 

But in the rush to make money from this lucrative group, are tech companies putting kids at risk?

That’s what some people are asking this week after an Internet company called Skout revealed that, in separate incidents, three members of its social networking site aimed at teenagers allegedly had been raped by adults who posed as teens and lured the kids into meeting them in person. The alleged victims were two girls, ages 12 and 15, and a 13-year-old boy.

Skout has shut down the teen site, and a spokesperson says it won’t reopen until the company can make sure members are safe. Two people close to the company said Skout may shut the site down for good.

The suspected incidents are bringing attention to a new class of mobile apps that combine profile data about individuals with GPS information gleaned from mobile phones. Even when these apps don’t result in physical harm, some are creating a whole new kind of creepiness. Earlier this year, some people freaked out over an app called Girls Around Me, which mixed data from Facebook, Foursquare, and GPS transmitters to let men find women nearby, even though the women didn't know they were being tracked. (The app got shut down after people protested.)

Skout started out in 2007 as a mobile location app, like Foursquare. A few years in, Skout was failing and in danger of going out of business. So management changed plans and Skout became an app designed for “young people who wanted to meet strangers and singles who wanted to flirt,” as TechCrunch, a Silicon Valley blog, put it in a profile earlier this year.

Originally, you had to be 18 years old to sign up for Skout. But the company discovered that lots of underage kids were lying about their age and signing up anyway. So Skout created a separate site for kids aged 13 to 17. 

That in itself may be part of the problem. “This app was created for an older crowd,” says Mary Kay Hoal, CEO of YourSphere, a kids-only social network. “The focus is on flirting and by default the interaction is going to be sexual. It was not socially responsible to make that available to kids.”

Business has been booming. In April, Skout claimed to be signing up 1 million new users a month and to be turning a profit. In April, Skout raised a $22 million investment from Andreessen Horowitz, a leading venture capital firm in Silicon Valley. (A spokesperson for Andreessen Horowitz said the partner who manages their Skout investment could not be reached for an interview.)

One problem may be that a lot of tech start-ups are run by engineers who focus on writing code and making cool things, and perhaps don’t think through the implications of the programs they’re putting out into the world, one expert says.

Gary Kremen, an investor in Skout who also advises the company, says Skout has done the right thing by cooperating with law enforcement, and by shutting down the site “to see if they can make it safe and secure.”

Kremen, who was the founder of Match.com, a dating site, says there’s nothing wrong with teens using social networks and social apps. He also points out that predators and criminals follow every new technology, so it’s not surprising that they’ve turned up on Skout. Also, Skout has been doing some moderation of the content on its site with a  partner called CrowdFlower.

Can any site really keep creeps from sneaking online? Perhaps not 100 percent, but a lot can be done, says Parry Aftab, CEO of WiredTrust, a company that sells products and services aimed at making Internet sites safer for young people.

Part of the job involves monitoring activity on sites. WiredTrust employs 65 moderators, and contracts their services out to Internet companies. (Aftab won’t say what companies use her moderation service, but she says she has been an adviser to Facebook, Disney, and other companies.)

Also, some work can be automated. WiredTrust sells a program called Pathway that scours a site looking for patterns that could signal trouble. “If you see someone who just joined and identified himself as being a certain age and then suddenly friends 40 to 50 girls who are under the age of 16, that’s something the technology should kick up to you and you should watch that person,” Aftab says.

Pathway also looks for words and phrases, like “Are you virgin,” and “Touch yourself.” It notices if a member asks another member for a phone number or a location. 

Doing all this monitoring and moderation is an added cost of doing business, but “if you’re going to be in the business of selling stuff to kids, it requires a much higher level of care,” Aftab says. “There's much more responsibility.”

One problem may be that a lot of tech start-ups are run by engineers who focus on writing code and making cool things, and perhaps don’t think through the implications of the programs they’re putting out into the world, says James Steyer, founder and CEO of Common Sense Media, an advocacy group whose goal is to protect children online.

Steyer has been alarmed by recent reports that Facebook is considering opening its service to children under the age of 13, which he thinks is a terrible idea. “Why does a 7-year-old need 1,000 friends on Facebook?” he says. “And why would we trust a company that can’t even get its act together for people over 13?”

The alleged rape of three children is an example of the most extreme kind of harm that can come to kids who socialize online, Steyer says. But there are other kinds of harm too, Steyer says, citing “consequences to the social, emotional and cognitive development of children.”

Steyer says the Skout situation “shows what happens when apps designed for adults try to open themselves up to kids. They don’t understand this market well enough to create an age-appropriate experience.”

He says more research needs to be done to determine what effect social sites have on children. “Why are we hurtling forward without thinking this through—just so we can make money? We should do the opposite. We should hit the pause button and have a serious national conversation about this before rushing in and opening up this world to children.

That’s a great idea. But I wouldn’t expect Facebook or anyone else in the gold-rush world of Silicon Valley to listen to it. There’s too much money at stake, and too many companies like Skout—well-intentioned but struggling, under loads of pressure from investors, desperate for any business model that can keep them afloat.

The questions I would ask are these: Why be in this business at all? Who aspires to run a flirt site for teens? Is there anything beneficial about this business other than the fact that there’s money to be made at it? And does anyone really need money that badly? 

Those are questions that I hope the people on Skout’s management team are asking themselves.

Editors' Note: Skout sent the following statement after publication: With over a quarter of its staff dedicated to community management, Skout actively monitors and screens so that user behavior is appropriate for all ages. The company also deploys advanced, proprietary technology that continuously monitors activity on the network to identify users whose behavior appears unusual, inappropriate or suspicious. These profiles are individually reviewed by trained staff and each month thousands of devices are kicked off the app for inappropriate behavior. Also, unlike many location-based apps, Skout’s service is “opt-in” and provides general rather than specific location information, empowering each community member to decide if, when and where to meet in person.