Free website looks at user reviews to determine which apps pose a danger to kids

New York Times reported today on a website called The App Danger Project, created by a computer scientist named Brian Levine of the University of Massachusetts Amherst. The site uses artificial intelligence to scan reviews of social networking sites in the App Store and Google Play Store to evaluate the context of certain words and phrases used in those reviews, including “child porn” or “pedo”. “There are reviews that talk about the types of dangerous behavior that are occurring, but these reviews are hidden. You can’t find them,” Levine said.
The website uses a Machine Learning algorithm to find apps that have been flagged as possibly dangerous for children due to the nature of user reviews. The site is free and although Levine does not intend to monetize the site for personal profit, he is asking for donations to the University of Massachusetts to cover the cost of running the project.

The three apps, which generated $30 million in revenue last year, had multiple user reviews that spoke of sexual harassment.

Levine and 12 other computer scientists did some research and discovered that of the 550 social networking apps offered by the App Store and Google Play Store, 20% received two or more complaints about content labeled as “child” in their reviews. 81 apps had seven or more such complaints. Levine says Apple and Google should do a better job of informing parents about such apps and moderating app storefronts for popping such headlines.

As you probably know by now, Apple and Google take 30% of the value of an in-app action. TimesCiting data from app analytics firm Sensor Tower, says two major app stores helped the three apps generate $30 million in sales last year, despite the trio receiving multiple sexual harassment reports. The apps were: Hoop, MeetMe and Whisper.

The Justice Department has described three apps in more than a dozen criminal cases in various states as “tools” used by subscribers to ask children to send them sexual images or meet them. According to Hany Farid, a computer scientist named Hany Farid who works with Mr. Levine at the App Danger Project, some apps that pose a danger to children remain in the App Store and Google Play Store.

“We’re not saying that every app that has reviews of child predators should be stopped, but if they have the technology to control it, why are some of these problematic apps still in stores?” says. A Google spokesperson said the company was investigating apps listed by the App Danger Project and found no evidence of child sexual abuse material. “While user reviews play an important role as a signal to trigger more research, the claims from reviews are not reliable enough on their own,” said a Google spokesperson.

Apple also researched the App Store apps listed by the website and kicked off 10 apps, though they didn’t reveal their names. “Our App Review team works 24/7 to carefully review each new app and app update to make sure it meets Apple standards,” a company spokesperson said.

Snapchat is also on the App Danger Project list because it’s “unsafe for kids.”

Hoop, one of the apps that pose a danger to children on the App Danger Project list, mentions sexual abuse in 176 of the 32,000 reviews published since 2019. One such review from the App Store states, “There are a lot of sexual predators here, as well as people named ‘Read my picture’, who are spamming people with links to join dating sites. They have a picture of a young boy and tell you to go to their site for child pornography.”

The app, now under new management, says it has a new content moderation system that makes the app more secure. Liath Ariche, CEO of Hoop, stated that the app has learned how to deal with bots and malicious users. “The situation has greatly improved,” he says. MeetMe parent Meet Group told the Times that it does not tolerate abuse or exploitation of minors, and Whisper did not respond to requests for comment.

It should be noted that apps like WhatsApp and Snapchat are also listed as “not safe for children” on the App Danger Project website. The App Danger Project may be said to be very sensitive, but when it comes to children, many will answer that zero tolerance is the only way to protect children.

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