Kik Messenger app scrutinized after 13-year-old's death

ATLANTA -- Kik Messenger, a smartphone app popular among younger teens, is on the defensive following the stabbing death of a 13-year-old girl in Virginia who told friends she was using Kik to connect with an 18-year-old man.

See Full Article

Like Instagram, Snapchat and other messaging rivals, Kik provides free, easy and instant connections to other users anywhere. Kik enables people to message each other one-on-one or in group chats, and to share photos, videos and other content. By enabling people to identify themselves only by an invented username, it provides more anonymity than services such as WhatsApp, which connect people through their phone numbers.

Law enforcement officials say the application is dangerous in part because parents cannot reliably prevent anonymous strangers from contacting their children if they use it.

Kik made an updated guide for parents available on its website following the arrests of two Virginia Tech students in the slaying of Nicole Lovell, a seventh-grader who lived two miles from their campus in Blacksburg, Virginia.

Kik also pushed out an update to the app, available on Google Play and Apple's iTunes store, and had Apple raise Kik's age-appropriate rating on Monday from 9+ to 12+, closer to its requirement that no one under 13 use the service, terms that are shared by Kik's rivals.

"We are trying to educate all users, parents and teens," company spokesman Rod McLeod told The Associated Press on Wednesday.

The parents' guide stresses that teens between 13 and 18 need a parent's permission to use Kik, but there's no technical way to enforce that or to prevent a child from entering a false birthdate, McLeod acknowledged.

"A lot of blame has been placed on Kik in the last two days," McLeod said, but he noted that many other social media networks operate the same way. "It's a problem that's spread around the industry," he said.

Kik Interactive Inc., the privately held Waterloo, Ontario-based company that launched the app in 2010, claims more than 200 million registered users, including 40 percent of U.S. teens and young adults. Investors recently valued their collective states in the company at $1 billion.

Asked whether making technical changes to remove the anonymity feature would harm Kik's business model, McLeod said. "I think part of the allure of Kik is that it is anonymous."

Many parents have vented their concerns on social media since the girl's body was found Saturday. "Attention all Parents: If your child has the APP "KiK" on their phone.......lose it!!" one woman posted on Facebook.

"There are a lot of bad elements out there. We certainly saw that in Blacksburg this week," said Adam Lee, special agent in charge of the FBI in Richmond, Virginia.

"Kids do all their communication on their phone," Lee added. "It's a lot harder to keep that computer in the kitchen like we used to. They are mobile with their communication. For parents to think they can go in after the fact and see what they are doing is a little naive."

McLeod said the company responded quickly when the effort to find Nicole turned to her use of Kik, acting on an emergency FBI request to provide information that the company believes led to the arrests of both suspects.

David Eisenhauer, 18, is charged with kidnapping and first-degree murder. His fellow engineering major, Natalie Keepers, 19, is accused of helping Eisenhauer before and after the crime, as well as helping to hide the body.

Police have not said whether they have recovered any of their electronic devices.

The company's website advises law enforcement that it does not have access to the text of Kik conversations but, with a court order or in an emergency, can provide users' location information, including their device's most recent IP address and timestamps of their chat messages, though not their content.

The company also can give authorities some user-provided details, such as name, email address, profile picture and birthdate, but says "this information isn't verified by Kik, meaning we don't have any way to know if it's accurate."

Jenkins said Kik's changes do little to alleviate his concerns, since there's no way to verify a user's age or parental permission.

"Kids are going to find a way around that ... You can have a 10-year-old with a cellphone claiming to be 18 and be on there," he said. "I don't know that it changes a whole lot in the way things go forward."

Associated Press Writer Larry O'Dell in Richmond, Virginia, contributed to this report.


Latest Tech & Science News

  • #RIPVine, long live stardom: Canadians who cashed in on Vine

    Tech & Science CBC News
    The timer has finally run out on Vine. When Twitter launched the micro-video feature back in 2013, it quickly became a viral enigma, challenging users to cram as much comedy, or culture, into each 480×480 pixel frame. Source
  • Fossilized dinosaur brain discovered on English beach

    Tech & Science CTV News
    What at first sight looked like just another brown pebble on an English beach turned out to be the first known example of fossilized brain tissue from a dinosaur. The brain tissue likely belonged to a species related to Iguanodon, a large herbivore that roamed the Earth approximately 133 million years ago, the Geological Society of London said in a blog post Thursday. Source
  • Apple's MacBook Pro gets a touch-sensitive panel [Photos]

    Tech & Science Toronto Sun
    CUPERTINO, Calif. — Apple unveiled long-awaited updates to its Mac computers Thursday, aiming to spark consumer interest in a product line often overshadowed by newer gadgets, such as the iPad and iPhone. The breakout feature is, as widely speculated, a new touch-sensitive panel on the MacBook Pro, Apple’s top-of-the-line laptop. Source
  • Tougher than steel, lighter than cotton: spider webs are a scientific marvel

    Tech & Science CBC News
    In amongst the jack-o'-lanterns, ghosts and goblins, spider webs always make a strong showing at this time of year. But spider webs are much more than just a spooky way to spice up your Halloween decorations. Source
  • Apple refreshes MacBook Pro with touch-sensitive strip

    Tech & Science CTV News
    CUPERTINO, Calif. -- Apple is announcing long-awaited updates to its Mac computers, aiming to spark consumer interest in a product line that often seems overshadowed by newer gadgets like the iPad and iPhone. Source
  • Study predicts deserts in Spain if global warming continues

    Tech & Science CTV News
    BERLIN -- Southern Spain will become desert and deciduous forests will vanish from much of the Mediterranean basin unless global warming is reined in sharply, according to a study released Thursday. Researchers used historical data and computer models to forecast the likely impact of climate change on the Mediterranean region, based on the range of scenarios that countries committed to at a global summit in France last year. Source
  • Twitter cutting 9% of staff, killing off Vine

    Tech & Science Toronto Sun
    NEW YORK — Twitter, seemingly unable to find a buyer and losing money, is cutting about 9% of its employees worldwide. The social media site has failed to keep pace with rivals Facebook, Snapchat and Instagram and in recent months, rumours that it would be acquired have run rampant. Source
  • New images show crater created on Mars by European lander

    Tech & Science CTV News
    BERLIN -- New images from a NASA satellite indicate that the European Space Agency's experimental Schiaparelli lander created a shallow crater on Mars when it plummeted to the surface last week. ESA lost communication with Schiaparelli shortly before the probe was supposed to touch down on Oct. Source
  • Battlefield 1 review: An odd way to play with history

    Tech & Science Toronto Sun
    Battlefield 1942 made war into an irreverent sport. Released in 2002 after a burst of Second World War nostalgia driven by Saving Private Ryan, Band of Brothers, and the Medal of Honor games, Swedish studio DICE designed a 64-person multiplayer shooter that would emphasize co-operation across enormous maps using the finicky weapons of the Second World War. Source
  • Small brown pebble turns out to be 'pickled' dinosaur brain tissue

    Tech & Science CBC News
    When fossil hunter Jamie Hiscocks came upon small brown pebble more than a decade ago in Sussex, England, he knew there was something weird about it. Turns out he was right — his 2004 find marked the first ever discovery of fossilized dinosaur brain tissue. Source