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Yak Attack: Are Your Posts Anonymous?

by Christy Walters

On Saturday, October 11, Penn State sophomore Jong Seong Shim, posted a threat to the social-media platform Yik Yak.

“I am going to kill everyone in penn state main on Monday,” Shim posted. “I got 5 beta mags of ar 15 and shoot everyone in the hub at 12:00. This is a warning.”

The “Penn State shooting” threat, along with other threats and harassment claims, has cast a dark shadow over the app whose tagline states: “no profile, no password, it’s all anonymous.” But is the app truly anonymous, and how does anonymity affect student safety?

Alex Knapp, a Pitt-Greensburg freshman, does not post on Yik Yak but scrolls through its comment feed during the day, for something to do.

“It’s foolish for people to think the app is really anonymous,” Knapp said. “You have to put your location services on to use it. They’re tracking your location and probably much more, so you’re not truly anonymous.”

The administrators of Yik Yak do track more than just a user’s location. According to their privacy policy, they collect users’ app access time, device I.D., application I.D. or other unique identifier, domain name, I.P. address, screen views, geo-location data (with permission), language information, device name and model, operating-system information, activities within the services, and the length of time that users are logged in.

This collection of data can be beneficial, like with the “Penn State shooting” threat, when police were able to apprehend Shim and charge him with sending terroristic threats, before any damage could be done.

Data collection and monitoring can also be considered an invasion of privacy. The “Yik Yak” app is marketed as anonymous but can track multiple pieces of identifiable information. Some may call this false advertising.
“It’s a double-edged sword,” Knapp said. “The police or security can protect us, but is somebody going to take that power too far? Have they yet? No, but who knows if that will be the case in the future.”

Seniors Kayla Dames and Megan Hans think that Yik Yak’s collecting user data is a good thing.

“There are a lot of messed up things that get posted on the app,” Hans said. “I’m kind of glad they can track people down if they have to.”

Pitt-Greensburg campus security is aware of Yik Yak and the problems that the app can cause on college campuses.

“We’ve received some complaints about things posted on the app,” said Chief of Security, Dale Blasko. “The problem is that the posts are time sensitive and they disappear. If we’re not alerted before that happens, we can’t retrieve any information. That’s what makes Yik Yak different from other social-media platforms.”

Officer Rob Jones, who specializes in cyber crimes for Pitt-Greensburg, said that an overwhelming amount of students use the app daily. This causes posts to disappear quickly.

“If something was posted yesterday and we weren’t alerted, chances are we wouldn’t be able to get any type of important information from the company, unless someone took a screen shot of the post itself or of the map that is attached,” Jones said. “It’s the same thing with Snapchat. The apps bill themselves as anonymous or temporary, and it takes more time and effort to track people down.”

These apps make it easier to hide behind a screen, and even elude authorities, but what many students do not know is that their yaks (posts on Yik Yak) aren’t contained in the Pitt-Greensburg campus. In fact, Yaks can be read up to 1.5 miles from their posting locations.

Carly Cardillo, a Pitt-Greensburg sophomore who reads Yik Yak for fun and posts content occasionally, understands that outsiders can see her posts.

“People that think their yaks are only seen by other Pitt-Greesnburg students are wrong,” Cardillo said. “You can see our yaks up at the mall and we can see Seton Hill’s. They’re not contained to our campus. Plus, people post their hall names and room numbers on there. Anybody from the outside can come find you that way. It’s dangerous.”

Inviting outsiders to come to campus and leading them straight to a specific doorstep may not be the only piece of flawed logic that students don’t account for when posting. Being mostly commuters, Pitt-Greensburg students may post threats to the school from more than 1.5 miles away where campus police and other students will never see them.

“If we’re not alerted to threats made off campus, like in Wilkinsburg, for example, we won’t know they exist,” said Jones. “Luckily though, most of the time, if someone sees a threat of any kind, they will go to their local authorities and then those authorities will alert us.”

Chief Blasko praised the support that campus security receives from neighboring police departments.

“We work closely with officers in the surrounding communities, and they are always forthcoming and helpful when matters of student safety are at hand,” Blasko said.

Security threats are not the only problem associated with Yik Yak and college campuses. Harassment and cyberbullying occur and, in fact, appear much more frequently.

Some students at Pitt-Greensburg have tried to take a stand against hateful comments and other forms of defamation that are posted on the app. They write good things about their teachers, roommates, and their community assistants, as well as spreading inspirational quotes. They use the hashtag #PositiveYakRevolution with their posts.

Though the positive Yak revolution is a nice idea in theory, plenty of unkind words still litter the app.

Chief Blasko and Officer Jones encourage students to call campus police and take screen shots of any posts that are direct threats to campus security, that could be deemed harassment, or that seem suspicious.

“Threats and things like that aren’t taken lightly these days,” Jones said. “If something doesn’t look right, it’s better to report it. Nobody is going to think you’re stupid if we look into it, and it ends up being nothing.”

Students can call campus police at 724-836-9865.

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