The Law and Business of Social Media
June 13, 2014 - Privacy

“Do You Want to Know a Secret?” The Risks Posed by Anonymous Social Apps

First we had social media platforms, but recently a variety of “anti-social” media platforms have emerged—well, anti-social in a sense. For years, social media platforms have encouraged (or even, in some cases, required) us to use our real identities, with the aim of building friendships and networks in the online world. But these new social media apps (such as “Secret,” “Whisper,” “Yik Yak”) are designed specifically to enable users to share posts anonymously. The types of “secrets” disclosed on these apps vary enormously—from teenage angst, fantasies and gossip, to the experiences of soldiers and survivors of abuse.

With these apps, one might say that we have gone full circle back to the early days of the Internet when anonymous posts on message boards were standard. Even Mark Zuckerberg, who in 2010 stated that he believed the social norms on privacy had changed, now apparently sees some merit in anonymity. In January 2014, when discussing certain new Facebook apps that can be accessed with anonymous sign-in, he stated, “If you’re always under the pressure of real identity, I think that is somewhat of a burden.”

People sometimes complain that much of social media is fake, with users presenting themselves in the best possible light. Some argue that these apps are different because they encourage authenticity by allowing people to say what they really think without worrying about damage to their digital reputation or posts coming back to haunt them. Fans of the apps also talk of their voyeuristic and addictive nature. And media outlets have even started using anonymous posts as news sources (sometimes to their dismay when the posts turn out to be false).

Whether these apps have longevity or are just a short-term fad remains to be seen. It is clear, however, that users should not be lulled into a false sense of security simply because these apps purport to be anonymous. Such apps present risks similar to any other social media platform. Indeed, these purportedly anonymous platforms may even be riskier than traditional social media platforms because anonymity may create an environment where users feel free to behave recklessly.

The truth is that “anonymous” doesn’t necessarily mean anonymous. Even if users are not required to provide any form of contact details to use an anonymous app, the app is very likely to collect certain information that will help identify the user (e.g., the unique digital ID of the user’s phone, location information, etc.). Therefore, it may not be very difficult to trace a user if required (e.g., by subpoena/court order). Indeed Secret’s Terms of Service state, “We may share information about you … in response to a request for information if we believe disclosure is in accordance with any applicable law, regulation or legal process, or as otherwise required by any applicable law, regulation or legal process.” Also, it is worth noting that the extent to which a user can maintain anonymity from other users will depend on how the app works. With Secret, a user’s posts are shown to the user’s network of phone contacts, and so, depending on what information a user posts, it may not take much for those contacts to figure out who posted a particular secret.

Accordingly, users of anonymous apps need to think carefully about what they post just as they would when using any social media platform. For example, users should be careful to avoid posting:

  • Information that could cause them to breach a court order or be in contempt of court
  • Information that could breach regulatory rules, e.g., in terms of insider trading or market abuse
  • Information that is classed as confidential or a trade secret
  • Information that breaches a third party’s intellectual property rights
  • Defamatory statements
  • Statements that could be considered threatening, abusive, discriminatory or in breach of applicable laws
  • Information that would be a breach of their terms of employment or otherwise constitute misconduct
  • Anything that violates the app’s terms of use

Using anonymous apps as a vehicle for whistleblowing is particularly problematic. Whisper’s editor-in-chief, Neetzan Zimmerman, has publicly advocated such use of Whisper, stating, “We’re talking about whistleblowing, exposing secrets at corporations … on the government level.” But many countries, including the U.K. and U.S., have specific whistleblower laws in place to protect employees, and companies may also have formal whistleblowing policies that prescribe how employees should report issues. An employee who blows the whistle using an anonymous app rather than through the proper channels may not be able to take advantage of the protection provided by such laws and policies if a disciplinary action is brought against the employee based on such action.

Companies will need to consider these new types of apps when formulating social media policies and educating their employees on social media use. But it’s not just an employee issue. As with other social media platforms, organizations need to be aware of the risks to the company of any criticism or attack via such an app (e.g., from a disgruntled user or competitor) and put in place appropriate monitoring and crisis management procedures to deal with such events.

That said, anonymous apps pose opportunities as well as risks, particularly in terms of targeting consumers who don’t use the more traditional social networks. Indeed, in February 2014, Gap Inc. claimed to be behind the first marketing post on Secret. Gap’s post asking, “This is the first Fortune 500 company to post on Secret. Guess who?” drew a lot of attention … and a few correct guesses.