Wildly Popular App Kik Offers Teenagers, and Predators, Anonymity
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.