When news of a massive illicit photo ring run by a high school football team in Canon City, Colo., broke this week, parents around the country were left scratching their heads.
How could a scandal involving at least 100 students and hundreds more nude photos go undetected for so long?
The answer: photo vaults.
Disguised to look and function like an innocent smartphone app, photo vaults — also known as “ghost apps” — allow people to conceal photos, video and information in plain view on their phone. They’ve been around since at least 2011, but have grown increasingly common as smartphones have gained popularity. The App Store and Google Play are littered with apps designed to help users hide their activity and camouflage sensitive information.
“If you look at your kid’s phone, everything looks normal, but one of the apps turns out to actually be some way to send messages to and from others that aren’t meant to be permanent,” George Welsh, the superintendent of Canon City school, told NBC affiliate KKTV.
Welsh added that the students collected the images “as a little bit of a game or contest.”
While Welsh’s words might come as a shock to many parents, they’re far from surprising to a younger generation of smartphone users, according to Mike Harris, an expert who investigates internet child sex crimes.
“Ghost apps, hidden apps, they’re everywhere and the kids know about them,” he told NBC affiliate KUSA. “We’ve been hearing about these for probably five plus years now. The problem is parents are giving their kids smartphones, iPads, and if their kids don’t know about ghost apps, or hidden apps, their friends do and they can tell them how to go about putting them on. And then we as parents, even if we try to be vigilant, check our kids’ technology devices, we’re not going to see them there.”
There are numerous versions of vault apps available to Apple or Android phone owners, many of them available for a few dollars or less online, where downloaders can read comprehensive reviews of each app. Some vault apps specialize in hiding photos, but others allow users to filter text messages and hide phone calls. Other apps — though not necessarily hidden — are designed to mislead others by creating the illusion that one person tried to get in touch with another or by making it impossible for other users to screenshot illicit text messages.
Among the most well-known photo vault apps is the Calculator % app, which allows users to hide photos in a working calculator. The description for the Calculator % app on iTunes reads:
“Anyone who starts this application looks at a calculator, but if you put in passcode it will open up private area. All files are securely stored in the App and remain completely private and confidential.”
Another popular ghost app, according to the New York Times, is Private Photo Vault, which is the 28th most downloaded photo and video app on the App Store, the paper reported. The app has racked up more than 1,000 reviews online, including one from Appeman7934, a user who wrote that he downloaded the app after a few pictures of an ex-girlfriend were accidentally viewed by others:
“Now, I feel secure all the time knowing that someone won’t be able to stumble into these pics without knowing my passcode,” Appleman7934 writes. “Peace of mind. I have just purchased the full version and have to say that it is worth it. The break-in report and decoy password really make it! The decoy password feature is great. Let’s say someone sees photo vault on your phone, and is like what is in that? You tell them the decoy password and it opens up to entire set of fake secret photos so people lose their curiosity.”
Harris told KUSA that he’s grown accustomed to a common refrain from naive parents: “Not my kid.”
“This one father in particular, he wept so hard, thought he was a failure because he just could not believe his 12-year-old daughter would be sending out inappropriate naked pictures of herself,” Harris recalled. “I told him, ‘You’re not a failure, our environment is failing our children, not just from us as parents, but our environment as a whole.”
The solution, he said, is for parents to get more familiar with smartphones and to scrutinize your child’s downloads.
“We suggest that parents put on parental controls,” Harris said. “If your kids needs an app, or wants an app, you find out what does that app do, why do you want this?”