Skout, a fast-growing and free flirting app for iOS, has come under fire recently, after it was discovered that a third child was raped by a man posing as a teenager in the app's separate section for 13- to 17-year-olds.
The NY Times reports:
In one case, a 24-year-old man was accused of raping a 12-year-old girl in Escondido, Calif. In the second, a 15-year-old girl said she had been raped by a 37-year-old man she met using Skout. In the third, a 21-year-old man in Waukesha, Wis., is facing charges that he sexually assaulted a 13-year-old boy.
Skout's users are able to swap photos, exchange virtual gifts, and chat via instant message; users can connect with others nearby, by GPS.
"I'm disgusted by what's happened here," Christian Wiklund, Skout's founder, told the Times. "One case is too many. When you have three, it looks like a pattern. This is my worst fear."
Mr. Wiklund explained the various safeguards Skout is said to have put in place to prevent the app from being used for any illicit behavior: the GPS feature is opt-in (it would seem these kids are opting in, to meet others of allegedly the same age); a couple dozen staff monitoring the community for inappropriate use or activity; and a "machine-learning technology - what it calls "the creepinator" - which monitors photos for nudity and checks chats for inappropriate sexual messages, profanity, spamming, copyright infringement and violent behavior."
The Times was told that tends of thousands of devices are removed from the service each month. Which might be reassuring, if only it were a little less vague.
To his credit, Mr. Wiklund said that, upon hearing of the rapes on local news, he reached out to law enforcement to provide any help he could in the investigation. But cooperation can only go so far, and it's necessarily after-the-fact.
The questions is: Can dating sites and apps like Skout exist without exploitation? Probably not. At least not entirely. But they certainly can be made a lot safer. After all, not every dating site is rocked by a rape scandal like this one.
And it's worth considering whether a designated youth forum might be counter to Wiklund's motives; doesn't a youth-specific area attract, other than youth, those who prey upon children specifically? Playgrounds are great for kids, but also for perverts and pedophiles. A virtual playground would seem to have a similar appeal. It's not like Skout's the only one in this predicament, either. [NYT]