Kik Messenger running on Android Lollipop
|Initial release||October 19, 2010|
10.7 / June 8, 2016
|Operating system||iOS 6.0 or later, Android, Windows Phone|
|Type||Instant Messaging Client, Web Browser|
Kik Messenger, commonly called simply Kik, is a proprietary instant messenger software application (app) for mobile devices from the Canadian company Kik Interactive, available free of charge on iOS, Android, and Windows Phone operating systems. Kik Messenger is modeled after BlackBerry Messenger. It uses a smartphone's data plan or Wi-Fi to transmit and receive messages, photos, videos, sketches, mobile webpages, and other content after users register a username. Kik is known for its features preserving users' anonymity, such as allowing users to register without providing a telephone number, and preventing users from being located on the service (including by the company itself) through any information other than their chosen username. According to Kik Interactive, as of December 2015, Kik Messenger had approximately 240 million registered users, and was used by approximately 40 percent of United States teenagers.
Kik Messenger has drawn controversy due to its reported involvement in a number of incidents of child exploitation. The app has been criticized as unsafe for minors due to its anonymity features and allegedly weak parental control mechanisms.
A main attraction of Kik that differentiates it from other messaging apps is its anonymity. To register for the Kik service, a user must enter a first and last name, e-mail address, and birth date (which, as of February 2016, must show that the user is at least 13 years old), and select a username. Users' names and birth dates are not verified, allowing users to misrepresent their identity and/or age if they so choose. The Kik registration process does not request or require the entry of a phone number (although the user has the option to enter one), unlike some other messaging services that require a user to provide a functioning mobile phone number.
The New York Times has reported that according to law enforcement, Kik's anonymity features go beyond those of most widely used apps. As of February 2016, Kik's guide for law enforcement said that the company cannot locate user accounts based on first and last name, e-mail address and/or birth date; the exact username is required to locate a particular account. The guide further said that the company does not have access to content or "historical user data" such as photographs, videos, and the text of conversations, and that photographs and videos are automatically deleted shortly after they are sent. A limited amount of data from a particular account (identified by exact username), including first and last name, birthdate, e-mail address, link to a current profile picture, device-related information, and user location information such as the most recently used IP address, can be preserved for a period of 90 days pending receipt of a valid order from law enforcement.
Kik's anonymity has been controversial because the lack of detection and tracking has attracted some illicit users, including online predators (see Controversies). It has also been suggested that the lack of a phone number requirement, coupled with the ability to use Kik on a variety of mobile devices other than a smartphone, has attracted child and young teen users because they are less likely to have smartphones. However, Kik's anonymity has also been cited as a protective safety measure for good faith users, in that "users have screennames; the app doesn’t share phone numbers or email addresses."
Since May 2014, Kik has contained a safety feature that blurs messages from strangers, so that users must opt in to view content sent by people outside their network. Users also have the option to delete any offensive content or block another user from contacting them. These features were developed in response to the widespread use of Kik for "cross-app" communication, whereby a user who encounters people on another app (usually a gaming app) would then use Kik to communicate with them.
Kik introduced several new user features in 2015, including a full-screen in-chat browser that allows users to find and share content from the web; a feature allowing users to send previously recorded videos in Kik Messenger for Android and iOS; and "Kik Codes", which assigns each user a unique code similar to a QR code, making it easier to connect and chat with other users.
Kik Interactive was founded in 2009 by a group of students from the University of Waterloo in Canada who wished to create new technologies for use on mobile smartphones. Kik Messenger is the first app developed by Kik Interactive, and was released on October 19, 2010. Within 15 days of its release, Kik Messenger reached one million user registrations, with Twitter being credited as a catalyst for the new application's popularity.
On November 24, 2010, Research In Motion (RIM) removed Kik Messenger from BlackBerry App World and limited the functionality of the software for its users. RIM also sued Kik Interactive for patent infringement and misuse of trademarks. In October 2013, the companies settled the lawsuit, with the terms undisclosed.
In November 2014, Kik announced a $38.3 million Series C funding round and its first acquisition, buying GIF Messenger "Relay". The funding was from Valiant Capital Partners, Millennium Technology Value Partners, and SV Angel. By this time, Kik had raised a total of $70.5 million.
On August 16, 2015, Kik received a $50 million investment from Chinese Internet giant Tencent, the parent company of the popular Chinese messaging service WeChat. The investment earned the company a billion dollar valuation. Company CEO Ted Livingston stated Kik's aspirations to become "the WeChat of the West" and said that attracting younger users was an important part of the company's strategy.
Awards and honors
On November 4, 2014, Kik scored 1 out of 7 points on the Electronic Frontier Foundation's secure messaging scorecard. Kik received a point for encryption during transit but lost points because communications are not encrypted with a key to which the provider does not have access, users cannot verify contacts' identities, past messages are not secure if the encryption keys are stolen, the code is not open to independent review, the security design is not properly documented, and there had not been a recent independent security audit. AIM, BlackBerry Messenger, Ebuddy XMS, Hushmail, Skype, Viber, and Yahoo Messenger also scored 1 out of 7 points.
Child exploitation is prominent on Kik Messenger, causing law enforcement and the media to frequently express concerns about the app. In 2014, a pedophile told The Trentonian newspaper: "I could go on it now and probably within 20 minutes have videos, pictures, everything else in between off the app because I know they're both still active. That's where all the child porn is coming off of." Similarly, in 2015 another pedophile stated: "The first thing that I thought was, 'Wow! I can be whoever I want to be. I can get anybody I want. I can achieve my sexual glorification [sic] through this app.'" Automated spam bots have also been used to distribute explicit images and text over Kik Messenger. A state law enforcement official interviewed by The New York Times in February 2016 identified Kik as "the problem app of the moment".
Prior to 2015, Kik Interactive addressed this issue by informing parents and police about their options to combat child exploitation. In March 2015, the company adopted a more aggressive strategy by utilizing Microsoft's PhotoDNA cloud service to automatically detect, delete, and report the distribution of child exploitation images on its app. (Some experts have noted that because PhotoDNA operates by comparing images against an existing database of exploitative images, it does not effectively prevent "realtime" online child abuse and may not detect material not yet added to its comparison database.) Kik Interactive also began collaborating internationally with law enforcement by joining the Virtual Global Taskforce, a partnership between businesses, child protection agencies, and international police services that combats online child exploitation and abuse. The company also sponsors an annual conference on crimes against children.
Minors' use of Kik
Kik has been criticized for providing inadequate parental control over minors' use of the app. The ability to share messages without alerting parents has been noted as "one of the reasons why teens like Kik". Parents cannot automatically view their child's Kik communications remotely from another device, but instead must have the password to their child's user account and view the communications on the same device used by their child. As of February 2016, Kik's parents' guide stresses that teens between 13 and 18 should have a parent's permission to use Kik, but there is no technical way to enforce the requirement or to guarantee that a minor will not enter a false birthdate. Kik Interactive has said that it uses "typical" industry standards for age verification, that "perfect age verification" is "not plausible", and that the company deletes accounts of users under 13 when it finds them, or when a parent requests the deletion.
Nicole Lovell case
In February 2016, Kik Messenger came under public scrutiny in connection with the death of 13-year-old Nicole Lovell, who disappeared from her home in Blacksburg, Virginia on January 27, 2016 and whose body was found three days later in Surry County, North Carolina. Lovell reportedly used the app to meet and communicate with an 18-year-old man, David Eisenhauer, who has been charged with her kidnapping and murder. During the investigation, Kik Interactive provided information to the FBI that the company believed helped lead to the arrests of Eisenhauer and an alleged accomplice. Following the arrests, Kik made an updated guide for parents available on its website and had Apple raise Kik Messenger's age-appropriate rating on its iTunes Store from 9+ to 12+, closer to Kik's requirement that no one under 13 use the service. A Kik company spokesman said that, while "a lot of blame" had been placed on Kik, many other social media networks operate in the same way, while also saying that "part of the allure of Kik is that it is anonymous."
Open-source module name controversy
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