By Julie J. Neel
Anonymity on social media is something of a myth. When social media was just beginning, all users were essentially anonymous. However, as these platforms developed, the identities of users began to be revealed.
The de-anonymization is what helped platforms like Facebook take off. However with the rise of the social media platforms came the threat of virtual stalkers, doxxing, cyberbullying, and other dangers associated with revealing our true selves on the Internet.
The Need for Anonymity
A need for anonymity amidst the mass of social media public profiles was the catalyst for sites like Reddit, Whisper, YikYak, and Secret. Even blockchain technology benefits from users’ anonymity. While most of these platforms and apps, save Reddit, have declined in popularity or no longer exist, there is still a need for developers to create more anonymous apps.
The average app user wants some level of anonymity and takes steps to protect their identity. For this reason, developers should consider creating more anonymous apps.
Understanding Different Types of Anonymity
According to a survey conducted with Pew Research Center, most Internet users are looking for apps that give them partial anonymity. This type of anonymity will allow users to keep their activities hidden from certain organizations, the government, and specific people.
Users strive to protect the following information the most:
- The content of their emails and messages.
- The contacts that they are messaging.
- The content that users are downloading.
- A user’s location while they use the app.
- How to Create an Anonymous App
When searching for” anonymous social network apps”, “anonymous social media app”, “how to build an anonymous app”, “anonymous social media app”, or “how to create anonymous social network apps”, developers will find that no app is completely anonymous.
The reality of the secure app is that the ones that are completely anonymous fail. Even the most confidential of platforms face a breach at some point. Developers that are aiming to create an anonymous app should approach the process by picking and choosing the kind of data they want to protect.
The most important way to keep the app as anonymous as possible is to store very little of users’ information. While many app developers take the route of encrypting their data, this isn’t a cure-all for keeping users’ information anonymous. Moreover, encrypting everything through the app’s back-end will cause its performance to plummet, making the user experience very unsatisfactory.
Use a Secure Communication Channel
Regardless of what level of anonymity developers want to provide users with, they’ll need to store some of their users’ data. The most secure anonymous apps need to have a user ID, activity history, list of messages, and contact list. To keep hackers out, app developers can encrypt this data using two keys: private and public.
The private key is used by chat creators to post messages. The public key is used to decrypt contact names and messages in the chat. Users that know the name of a specific chat can read the messages inside, but only certain users can write inside the chat itself.
Making the Location Anonymous
It isn’t difficult to identify a users’ location on some of the most popular apps and platforms. In order to make users’ locations anonymous, app developers must actively protect against the many ways for hackers to access this location.
Most apps tap into users’ GPS. This information can then be used to determine a user’s location. Another popular method for pinpointing a location is using someone’s IP address. While this isn’t as accurate at identifying someone’s location, it can be used in conjunction with a user’s device footprint and login time to determine a user’s identity and location.
App developers that aim to protect against these two methods of de-anonymization can use special software like Tor, proxies or VPN networks. These types of technology will defend an app against traffic analysis and network surveillance. The Tor software can be used to redirect a user’s communications by way of a distributed network.
Other methods developers can use to protect users’ anonymity include using device footprints and location to connect a user’s messages and information with their device. Apps like Whisper use a unique token to link a user’s messages, posts, and information with their phone or other mobile device.
Sarahah was an anonymous app that launched in 2016. Initially designed as a way for employees to leave feedback about their employers, the app quickly turned into a hotspot of offensive activity with trolls and cyber bullies running rampant. What started off as a well-intentioned app became a nightmare for users everywhere.
The lesson Sarahah teaches app developers is that anonymity must be two-sided. In order to promote anonymity while protecting users from harassment, factoring in methods for content moderation is a must. Apps like Whisper are able to almost eliminate offensive content with their content moderation.
Whisper uses a combination of moderation by humans and artificial intelligence tools. As Whisper is one of the only anonymous apps that is still going strong, developers would do well to follow in their footsteps when it comes to moderating content.
Tools for Content Moderation
With all the user-generated content that apps face, it is impossible to moderate content manually. Consider the following methods for moderating content:
Internal CMS (Internal Content Moderation System).
“Report” option to encourage moderation by users.
A basic algorithm for explicit content.
Volunteer content moderators.
Geofencing to block fake accounts at certain locations.
Video and image moderation by way of machine learning.
Outsourcing content moderation to a content moderation company.
Final Thoughts on Anonymous App Development
Along with the challenges of building an app, developers hoping to create an anonymous app must consider all of the security measures necessary to protect their users and protect the app itself. These developers can make use of pre-existing solutions for basic app functions like notifications, user profiles, news feed, chat, and the like in order to simplify the development process.
As developers work to enforce anonymity in their apps, they should keep in mind that 100% anonymity isn’t possible. However, making the decision to keep certain aspects of the app anonymous is achievable with the right protections in place. Keep this guide in mind as you aim to navigate the process of anonymous app development.
About the Author
Julie J. Neel. Student of Biola University. An expert in business and tech. I am that kind of person who tries to understand «why» and not only «what».