A Geek With Guns

Chronicling the depravities of the State.

Degrees of Anonymity

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When a service describes itself as anonymous how anonymous is it? Users of Yik Yak may soon have a chance to find out:

Yik Yak has laid 70 percent of employees amid a downturn in the app’s growth prospects, The Verge has learned. The three-year-old anonymous social network has raised $73.5 million from top-tier investors on the promise that its young, college-age network of users could one day build a company to rival Facebook. But the challenge of growing its community while moving gradually away from anonymity has so far proven to be more than the company could muster.

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But growth stalled almost immediately after Sequoia’s investment. As with Secret before it, the app’s anonymous nature created a series of increasingly difficult problems for the business. Almost from the start, Yik Yak users reported incidents of bullying and harassment. Multiple schools were placed on lockdown after the app was used to make threats. Some schools even banned it. Yik Yak put tools in place designed to reduce harassment, but growth began to slow soon afterward.

Yik Yak claimed it was an anonymous social network and on the front end the data did appear anonymous. However, the backend may be an entirely different matter. How much information did Yik Yak regularly keep about its users? Internet Protocol (IP) addresses, Global Positioning System (GPS) coordinates, unique device identifiers, phone numbers, and much more can be easily collected and transmitted by an application running on your phone.

Bankruptcy is looking like a very real possibility for Yik Yak. If the company ends up filing then its assets will be liquidated. In this day and age user data is considered a valuable asset. Somebody will almost certainly end up buying Yik Yak’s user data and when they do they may discover that it wasn’t as anonymous as users may have thought.

Not all forms of anonymity are created equal. If you access a web service without using some kind of anonymity service, such as Tor or I2P, then the service has some identifiable information already such as your IP address and a browser fingerprint. If you’re access the service through a phone application then that application may have collected and transmitted your phone number, contacts list, and other identifiable information (assuming, of course, the application has permission to access all of that data, which it may not depending on your platform and privacy settings). While on the front end of the service you may appear to be anonymous the same may not hold true for the back end.

This issue becomes much larger when you consider that even if your data is currently being held by a benevolent company that does care about your privacy that may not always be the case. Your data is just a bankruptcy filing away from falling into the hands of somebody else.

Written by Christopher Burg

December 9th, 2016 at 10:00 am