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More teens are using ghost apps that hide secret photos and videos


CHARLESTON, W.Va. (WCHS, WVAH) - Some of the most popular smartphone apps today are ones that could put children at risk. They are secretive apps known as photo vaults.

These photo vault apps also are known as camouflage or ghost apps because they are disguised as something else on a smartphone, sort of a secret doorway, to hide pictures and videos you don’t want just anyone to see.

The apps aren’t inherently dangerous, but they open up a world of danger for children. Teens today live and interact through apps on their phones. It’s become such a part of their lives that a group of seniors at Lincoln County High School in West Virginia said it’s pretty common for students to have camouflage apps.

Victoria Bates, Rachel Pennington, Samuel Smith, Tyler Hoffman and Madison Bowman communicate through their phones constantly. When asked how widespread the use of these camouflage apps are among students, the answers were all the same.

“Everyone has them,” they all chimed in.

“I’ve known about it since middle school,” Pennington said.

These students said the vault apps might be new for parents, but not for students who find the secretive apps very appealing. Spy Calc, for example, looks like a calculator, acts as calculator, but if you put in a certain code and press the equal sign, you unlock hidden photos and video.

Then there are more sophisticated apps like Hide It Pro that are more complex. With Hide It Pro, people can even hide other apps. These high school seniors don’t use camouflage apps, but they say plenty of kids do.

“If it’s illegal, it’s probably on there,” Pennington said.

Others in the group agreed.

“I mean, if it’s hidden, they don’t want people to know,” Bates said. “It looks like a calculator, so they don’t want you to know that there’s something in there, that it’s not math related.”

It is that ‘something’ that can get them in trouble.

Mike McCormick is a technology integration specialist for Lincoln County schools.

When asked what he finds on student's phones, he said, “All kinds of different stuff. Stuff from, you know, funny memes to sexually explicit pictures in some cases. Sometimes of themselves, their girlfriends, their significant others.”

Those explicit pictures can land students in hot water because sharing digital images of kids in compromising positions could be considered child pornography, and a criminal offense. It also opens the door to child predators. It’s McCormick’s job to update teachers and students on technology use and its dangers.

“Boys treat these like baseball cards,” McCormick said. “They go all over the place, and girls kind of do the same thing, too. You used to think it was more boys doing this kind of stuff and it would be kind of gender-specific, but it’s about half-and-half nowadays. I have to talk with as many young ladies in my office as I do with young gentlemen about these issues.”

These students know what can happen and offer advice to both students and parents.

“If you don’t want it out there, then you should not be sending it around, because it will never go away,” Bates said.

Smith said simply, “Don’t take photos of it."

Hoffman said if you're a parent, "check your kid’s phone."

Meanwhile, Pennington said if there is a vault, "there’s most likely going to be something bad on them."

They offer one last piece of advice on how to start the dialogue with your child. Hoffman advised to “just check your kids’ phones every now and then. It’s your phone. It’s not theirs. You bought it."

Bowman pointed out if there is a second calculator on the phone, "it’s a little suspicious."

A sit-down, honest talk with your kid is what Bates recommends.

"Like we know that these exist, so just open a dialogue. Have a dialogue. An open dialogue and make sure you’re talking with your kid honestly, like ‘I know these exist, you know these exist, and if we have to talk about it, we have to talk about it," Bates said.

To get ahead of these issues, parents should set parental controls and restrictions upfront. Many of the family sharing plans require children to ask permission to download any app, even free apps.

So, how do you know if your child’s phone has a "vault" app? Here are some suggestions.

  • Check their phone for duplicate apps, such as two calculators. Photo vault apps also can be disguised as something else.
  • Go to the Google Play or Apple Store on your child’s phone and do a couple of searches, such as “hidden apps” or “vault apps” or even “private photos.”
  • If the word “GET” appears next to the app for download that means the app is not on their phone.
  • If the app is already on the phone, the word “OPEN” appears next to the app. This means the app is already downloaded on the device.
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