Yik Yak Shares User Information With Police

Although you can post in the app with an anonymous pseudonym, some students sent threatening text messages — which prompted police action.

by Sean Sposito, San Francisco Chronicle / November 16, 2015

(TNS) -- Social networks that market themselves as anonymous mask users’ identities only from one another, not police.

That’s the lesson revealed this week by a much-publicized arrest tied to Yik Yak — an app that allows users to post unattributed messages on forum-like threads.

After students protesting racial inequality at the University of Missouri in Columbia forced the ouster of two of the school’s highest officials, threats appeared on the social network, which is popular among college students.

“I’m going to stand my ground tomorrow, and shoot every black person I see,” one read.

“Some of you are alright,” read another. “Don’t go to campus tomorrow.”

By Wednesday morning, Hunter M. Park, a 19-year-old from Lake St. Louis, Mo., was arrested at the Missouri University of Science and Technology in Rolla. Police told the Kansas City Star that Park has confessed.

Yik Yak is an Atlanta startup reportedly valued at around $400 million. It attracted more than 3 million monthly active users last year, according to Business Insider.

Unlike Facebook, which requires users to post under their real names, social networks such as Yik Yak have positioned themselves as bastions of open conversation — safe from the judgment of parents, teachers or employers.

The outcome is the same candor and immaturity that might be scrawled on bathroom stalls. It is evident in Yik Yak’s most-liked message of all time: a dirty joke.

Though users aren’t identified by name, the company stores information — such as location and IP addresses — and readily hands it over at the request of law enforcement or government, according to its privacy policy.

“Yik Yak works alongside local authorities to help in investigations,” wrote Brooks Buffington, co-founder and chief operating officer, in a blog post.

In some emergency cases, Yik Yak will even send that data without a warrant, according to its legal page. It does so to “prevent death or serious physical harm to someone (for instance, in cases involving kidnapping, bomb threats, school shootings, or suicide threats).”

That might surprise some who expect that its promise of anonymity goes beyond marketing.

“If there is a server then that creates risk,” said Pam Dixon, executive director of the World Privacy Forum in San Diego. “And when that data is saved, even if it’s encrypted it can be subpoenaed.”

There are harsh penalties for companies that disregard such orders, she added.

In 2013, Lavabit, the encrypted Web mail service reportedly used by Edward Snowden, was forced out of business after refusing to comply with a government request to identify its users by turning over encryption keys.

Having raised $73 million, , Yik Yak is a success by Silicon Valley standards. It recently added a new feature: photos, no faces allowed.

That’s great news for law enforcement.

“It’s a tool that we use when we can,” said a University of Missouri police spokesman.

©2015 the San Francisco Chronicle Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.