Wildly Pop­u­lar App Kik Of­fers Teenagers, and Preda­tors, Anonymity

The Star (St. Lucia) - - INTERNATIONAL - By SH­ERYL GAY STOLBERG and RICHARD PÉREZ-PEÑA - NY Times

The al­le­ga­tions are be­yond chill­ing: two Vir­ginia Tech fresh­men charged with the pre­med­i­tated kid­nap­ping and killing of a 13-year-old girl who, au­thor­i­ties say, com­mu­ni­cated with her mur­derer on­line. But the way they chat­ted — on a wildly pop­u­lar mes­sag­ing app called Kik — has in­creas­ingly be­come a source of con­cern for law en­force­ment.

The death of Ni­cole Madi­son Lovell, a liver trans­plant and can­cer sur­vivor from Blacks­burg, Va., has put Kik — widely used by Amer­i­can teenagers but not as well known to adults as Snapchat or In­sta­gram — in the spot­light at a time when law en­force­ment of­fi­cials say it has been linked to a grow­ing num­ber of abuse cases. Neigh­bors say that the day be­fore she died, Ni­cole showed them Kik mes­sages she had ex­changed with an 18-yearold man she was to meet that night. Kik is co­op­er­at­ing in the in­ves­ti­ga­tion. Its of­fi­cials say they re­sponded to “mul­ti­ple emer­gency re­quests” from the F.B.I. for in­for­ma­tion that helped lead to the ar­rests of the stu­dents, David Eisen­hauer, 18, and Natalie Marie Keep­ers, 19, both as­pir­ing en­gi­neers from Mary­land. And ex­perts in In­ter­net crime cau­tion that the app is just one of many dig­i­tal plat­forms abused by all man­ner of crim­i­nals, from small-time drug deal­ers to ter­ror­ists.

But law en­force­ment of­fi­cials say Kik — used by 40 per­cent of Amer­i­can teenagers, by the com­pany’s own es­ti­mate — goes fur­ther than most widely used apps in shield­ing its users from view, of­ten mak­ing it hard for in­ves­ti­ga­tors to know who is us­ing it, or how. (Yik Yak is an­other pop­u­lar app un­der fire for its use of anony­mous mes­sages.)

“Kik is the prob­lem app of the mo­ment,” said David Frattare, com­man­der of the Ohio In­ter­net Crimes Against Chil­dren Task Force, which in­cludes hun­dreds of law en­force­ment agen­cies. “We tell par­ents about Kik, and to them it’s some earth-shattering news, and then it turns out it’s been on their kid’s phone for months and months. And as a law en­force­ment agency, the in­for­ma­tion that we can get from Kik is ex­tremely lim­ited.”

Kik’s ap­peal to young peo­ple goes far be­yond anonymity. Teenagers like its spe­cial emoji and other fea­tures. It of­fers free and un­lim­ited tex­ting. And like AOL In­stant Mes­sen­ger and MyS­pace, Kik is a space that par­ents are un­likely to know about. But it is also place where in­ap­pro­pri­ate sex­ual con­tent and be­hav­ior can flour­ish.

Cases in­volv­ing Kik in just the past 10 days in­clude:

A St. Louis man charged with us­ing Kik to ex­change child pornog­ra­phy.

A western New York man charged with find­ing a 14-yearold girl through Kik and, pos­ing as a teenager, send­ing her sex­u­ally ex­plicit mes­sages and try­ing to get her to meet him.

An Alabama man charged with statu­tory rape and the at­tempted kid­nap­ping of a 14-year-old con­tacted on Kik.

A Colorado man charged with tak­ing a 13-year-old Con­necti­cut girl to a ho­tel and sex­u­ally as­sault­ing her, af­ter chat­ting and ar­rang­ing the meet­ing on Kik.

“The Kik app has be­come so pop­u­lar, it’s prob­a­bly the one where law en­force­ment has seen the most ac­tiv­ity,” said Les­lie Rut­ledge, the Arkansas at­tor­ney gen­eral, who is­sued a pub­lic plea last year to par­ents to ed­u­cate them­selves about their chil­dren’s on­line habits af­ter two Arkansas men used Kik to so­licit nude pho­tos from un­der-age girls — and an un­der­cover in­ves­ti­ga­tor.

Founded in 2009 and based in Canada, Kik as­pires to be­come the Western ver­sion of WeChat, the hugely suc­cess­ful mes­sag­ing ser­vice in China.

Ni­cole Madi­son Lovell, 13, dis­ap­peared from her home and her body was

found four days later.

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