The app store can be a jungle. Among the most familiar, popular apps lie hundreds upon hundreds of apps that may (or may not) be useful on a smaller scale. Some of these apps aren’t what they appear to be.
Take the Apple app Calculator%. It was a fully functioning calculator! Pretty harmless, right?
It had a secret, though. It contained an album that allowed users to hide photos and videos behind what appeared to be a mere calculator. That proves to be pretty handy for a teenager who’s trying to keep some content secret from a parent who might casually glance through the smartphone.
Apple recently removed the app from its store in the middle of an investigation by police in Great Britain.
But the story of decoy apps doesn’t end there.
The Rise of the Decoy Apps
Dr. Chris Taylor, an associate professor at the Milwaukee School of Engineering, was quoted in this article:
“So a decoy app is an app that’s designed to look like one thing but serve a different purpose…. They do have a legitimate purpose if you wanted to hide your passwords, and you didn’t want anybody to know that you even had passwords on your phone, so they didn’t try to get at them. If you have a decoy app, that’s a great place to stick it.”
Of course, people have found other uses for decoy apps.
This article says decoy or vault apps have been around since 2012. In 2015, high school students in Colorado were caught trading hundreds of naked photos (featuring at least 100 different students) via vault apps. It made it easy for the kids to conceal the photos, which otherwise might have been noticed by diligent parents.
How to Spot a Decoy App
In the app stores, decoys are not a secret. They explain exactly what they are and what they’re for. Some of them include:
- Calorie Counter – Hide My Text
- Hide My Text – Invisible
- Secret Hidden Calculator Free
- GalleryVault Pro Key
- Private Photo Vault
- Best Secret Folder
The point is, if you’re looking on the app store, you’ll find the decoy apps right away. However, on your child’s device, you might not notice a seemingly innocent calculator, game, or music app. If you make regular checks of your child’s device, don’t spend all your time in the photos and texts: check for new apps, as well. If you’re not familiar with what you see, look them up to find out if they might be doubling as a hiding place.
The Problem With These Apps
The big problems are obvious now: the Colorado sexting ring is an example of that. But how else might this become a problem for your child?
They might not just be hiding photos and videos. Some apps allow for secret chats to be exchanged; your child could bully someone or be bullied behind that closed door. It’s also a place for them to hide passwords you are supposed to have access to.
Keep in mind that decoy apps require a password to access the hidden material, but they may also allow for decoy passwords! In that case, you might spot the decoy app and ask your child to open it. He or she enters a password and shows you a lot of innocent content that was placed there as a second decoy. Meanwhile, there’s a real password that accesses different material.
How to Keep Your Child From Using Decoy Apps
It’s probably hard to imagine that your children could get involved with something like an illicit sexting ring, but the truth is it’s hard to keep track of every influence your children are under when they’re away at school.
Of course, the presence of a decoy app on your child’s device doesn’t automatically mean they’re involved in something like that, but it does probably mean you need to find out what’s going on.
Common Sense Media offers the following guidelines for dealing with decoy apps:
- Talk to your kids: The online safety talk should happen at least by the time they get their first mobile device. Allow this to be an ongoing conversation where your child feels free to share anything that concerns him or her online.
- Talk about photos: Even private photos shared between two people, such as those in an intimate relationship, can easily be made public if one party decides to violate the trust out of jealousy, anger, or any other emotion. Teenagers may have a hard time understanding that when they’re in the middle of a relationship with someone they trust.
- Keep in mind the reasons for hiding: Your kids might not be trying to deceive you; instead, they might be hiding something from a friend. There’s a reason for concern here, as well, but you don’t have to assume they’re hiding something from you.
- Take a look: “If you need to do a spot check, on iPhones go to Settings -> Privacy -> Camera to see which apps have used the camera. This will reveal any camera apps disguised as something else.”
- Don’t assume the worst: Maybe your kids aren’t hiding anything at all. Maybe they’re just curious about new apps and technology and enjoy playing with them. If you see a vault or decoy app on your child’s device, find out more before jumping to conclusions.
Your child may exhibit certain behaviors that could indicate some trouble online. These don’t necessarily point to a decoy app, but they are enough for you to take a closer look at what might be happening with your child on the internet:
- Regularly hiding the screen from onlookers
- A sudden change in mood or personality
- Spending more and more time online
- Unwillingness to share social media usernames and passwords
- Unwillingness to talk about what they do online
- Disinterest in formerly enjoyable activities
- Disinterest in going to school
With trustworthy parental controls, you can block specific apps and entire categories of apps, so your child can’t download them in the first place or if you just want them to take a break from apps that they tend to overuse. This gives you a powerful tool in managing your child’s online activity—and safety.