Technology

Teens are flocking to new photo-sharing apps. Are they safe?

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After downloading the photo-sharing app Locket Widget, 23-year-old Amalu Susan Santhosh and her high-school-aged cousins have all but abandoned their group text.

Locket lets them view photos from one another right on their iPhone home screens without opening an app or typing a message.

“We might be too busy to text each other, but we wanted something where we could share everyday moments,” the Durham, N.C.-based student said. Another plus: She never gets friend requests from strangers demanding nudes like she does on Snapchat, Santhosh added.

As Snapchat and Instagram draw criticism for safety and mental health concerns, some young people are opting for a different way to keep in touch. Photo “widgets” LiveIn and Locket are grabbing attention for their fuss-free photo sharing — just snap a photo and it pops up in a tiny window on your friend’s home screen. LiveIn was the No. 1 free social networking app in the Apple App Store as of Sunday. The original blockbuster app in this category, Locket Widget — which started as a way for one boyfriend-girlfriend pair to keep in touch before going viral on TikTok and soaring to the top of app charts in January — hovered at No. 8.

LiveIn combines the low-stakes feel of a friends-only messaging app like Snapchat with a global feed similar to the Instagram explore tab, while Locket limits each user’s friends to 10 people and has no public feed. We examined these apps and found privacy problems, as well as some safety risks for parents to keep in mind.

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Are LiveIn and Locket private?

LiveIn and Locket are designed for sharing “moments,” or photos, with individual friends or small groups. But LiveIn also comes with drawing and typing options, as well as a global feed and a comment function, which add a social media element. If teens share photos to the global feed, anyone can see them and send them friend requests. Sharing to friends or followers only is safer, but there’s currently no setting for parents to limit that sharing. Teens can also scroll LiveIn’s global feed whenever.

I saw a few sexually suggestive posts when I scrolled, but nothing explicit. I also saw some posts that appeared to be from people younger than 12. A LiveIn spokesperson said the app “puts great effort” into moderating the feed.

“We have age-friendly community guidelines in place, and users can report photos that they think violate community guidelines. More importantly, we have a moderation team that works 24/7 everyday to review every photo that is sent public to minimize any risk of inappropriate content,” a spokesperson said in an email.

Users on LiveIn can search through usernames and send friend requests to people they don’t know. Talk with your teen about how to respond if they receive requests from strangers.

Co-founder Johnny Lin at privacy app Lockdown said he observed data from LiveIn flowing to third parties, including Facebook and Google. Locket shares data with third parties including Google and Snap, according to Lin’s analysis. Neither LiveIn nor Locket discloses in their privacy policies that they share data with outside companies, which could be a violation of the California Consumer Privacy Act if the apps have more than 50,000 users in the state.

After The Washington Post presented Lin’s findings to LiveIn, it repeated its claim that it doesn’t share data.

LiveIn also didn’t disclose in its Apple App Store “privacy nutrition label” that it collects “user content” in the form of photos. An Apple spokesman said LiveIn was in violation of Apple’s guidelines but declined to elaborate. The Apple spokesman said Apple was working with the developers on their compliance, and LiveIn’s App Store listing now reflects that it collects user content and can track people.

The apps’ privacy policies don’t appear to have been updated. As of Sunday, both apps were live in the Apple App Store.

When you share on LiveIn, the parent company and its affiliates get a “worldwide, royalty-free, sublicensable, and transferrable license to host, store, cache, use, display, reproduce, modify, adapt, edit, publish, analyze, transmit, and distribute that content,” according to its terms of service. Similarly, Locket’s parent company and its affiliates can “copy, display, upload, perform, distribute, store, modify, and otherwise use your user content in connection with the operation of the service in any form, medium or technology now known or later developed.” Terms of use for other social platforms use similar language.

Both apps ask to access your contacts and camera, though on LiveIn, I was able to invite friends without syncing my contacts. Contact-sharing has a history of privacy problems, and many apps aren’t clear on what use they make of your address book.

LiveIn and Locket are listed for ages 12 and older on the Apple App Store. But that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re appropriate for middle-schoolers and younger teens, said Chris McKenna, founder of the digital safety organization Protect Young Eyes. He recommends waiting until high school — junior high is complicated enough without giving kids access to a constant stream of images from other people’s lives, he said.

McKenna recommends that before allowing kids to download any new app, parents use it themselves for seven full days to get a sense of any safety concerns.

“Read the privacy policy. Use it for seven straight days like they would, and then ask yourself, ‘Is my son or daughter, with their maturity, ready?’ Because parents and guardians are in the best position to know their child,” he said.

Should parents be worried?

Like any app in which teens share photos, LiveIn and Locket come with risks.

Perhaps the biggest is the potential for cyberbullying, said Titania Jordan, chief marketing officer for the parental control app Bark. Because photos pop up automatically on the home screen widget, kids could be surprised by images they don’t want to see or embarrassed by images that show up while someone is looking over their shoulder. Receiving unsolicited nude images is already a huge problem for teenagers, Jordan said, and this method of photo sharing could appeal to jokesters, bullies and abusers alike.

Locket only allows for 10 friends at a time. Anyone who lived through the Myspace era remembers the hurt feelings that come when apps push us to rank our friends.

Overall, parents should pay just as much attention to photo widgets as they do social media apps, Jordan noted, because anywhere teens spend time online, predators will go, too.

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How you set up the widgets

Despite the privacy issues, if you still want to download LiveIn or Locket on an iPhone, hold your finger down somewhere on the home screen until your apps and folders start jiggling. Then, tap the plus sign in the upper left corner. Search or scroll to find the app’s logo and name, then select “add widget.”

On an Android phone, touch and hold an empty space on the home screen, then select “widgets.” Swipe through your options until you see the app’s logo and name, then hold down the widget and drag it into an empty place.

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