You’re still not done gathering supplies and checking off to-do lists in advance of the new school year if you’re unaware of so-called vault apps. We read about and see stories all through the academic year about the shenanigans of school-aged children, and those in school who are legally adults: cyberbullying, sexting, cyberstalking, Snaps, Instas, and all the rest.
What in the Wide World of Sports are these kids doing holed up in the bedrooms, head down, smirking about how they’re oh-so-savvy while Mom and Dad are oh-so-clueless? We not only know this because it’s going on under our roof, but also because, let’s face it, it was all the same “back in the day.” Doesn’t matter if your day was on the cusp of the internet, in the car phone era, or well before any of these things were in the zeitgeist. Always, always, the youngsters are battling the oldsters to stay a step ahead, particularly when it comes to communications.
Enter “vault apps.” A vault app is simply one category of smartphone applications. You might have calendars, maps, Facebook, Pinterest, and Pandora in your stable of helpful applications to manage your workaday and entertainment. For some of the classroom age, theirs may seem foreign, indeed, and gaming is only one of things in that unfamiliar arena. At first blush you might see some on their smartphones that look familiar, as well. There’s the calculator app. Handy, yes? There’s that game they’re constantly on, but you know that it’s legit. Go ahead. Feel good about being so tech savvy and recognizing them. Just know that those littler ones running the home are digital natives, and they know what’s really going on. You still haven’t found the vault app.
Vault apps are applications, typically free of charge, that you can download and that only appear on their surface to do what your kids want you to think they do. Take the calculator example. A calculator is a useful tool, sometimes a crutch, but a bona fide tool nonetheless. Unless, that is, it’s a vault app calculator. That app looks like a calculator. It does everything that a calculator does. Just ask them to show you. They’ll proudly demonstrate, barely able to contain their giggles at your naiveté. This is because in the vault version of a calculator app, there’s a hidden doorway. It’s a four or six-digit number. Would you know enough to compel them to enter that number as if they’re beginning a calculation, the door would creak open. The input “132746” and lo and behold! The screen flips around, like a bookcase in an Agatha Christie novel, and there they have hidden away photos, videos, chat strings and text messages, you name it. Also in that hidden calculator screen there a link that reads “Browser.” Now you’re really out of the loop. Their secret cache of media and communications may pale in comparison to the subjects they’ve been searching online through that hidden browser.
Other behaviors are suspect. There’s an app out there that immediately closes down the smartphone after giving it a shake or two, or one where it goes dark from turning the phone over. Cops call these moves “furtive” acts, and they’re reason in and of themselves for searching and seizing potential evidence. When you crack their bedroom door open and they continually shake their phone just to turn it toward you, “See, I wasn’t even on my iPhone!” Nope. You’re not buying it any longer.
The spy games don’t end there, either. The apps have counterintelligence, as it were. There are “break-in” reports that will tell them via text when someone (you) tries to get into the hidden vault. They can set up a decoy password that appears successful, but then only takes you to where they want you to go. Pretty sophisticated, especially to those of us who thought we were sneaky with our flashlight and comic books after bedtime.
What can you do? Well, first in the healthiest homestead you’ll be able to trust your kiddies. In government circles the phrase goes on: Trust … but verify. Have a talk about “these tricky tools I read about” and let them educate you. Ask them to open up their apps. One red flag would come from their vehement opposition to opening an otherwise innocuous calculator or navigation app, or their aghast look at the notion of sharing their login credentials. You could do your own App Store or Google Play “shopping” and poke around those clearinghouses of applications looking for “vault apps.” Assuming that you can open their phone, look for duplicate apps. If they have two apps for the same game, or two calculators, something is amiss. Lastly, if you share plans you can likely see everything that everyone on the plan has downloaded. That may get you farther still if you look for vault apps and you see that you don’t need to buy one because it’s already available from the cloud (look for the little cloud icon to indicate that you, or someone on your plan, already bought it).
This is an entire underworld of activity. Some of it is likely quite innocent. We all remember how desperate we were for independence, and how meddling our parents were in the face of that desperation. However, the little bit discussed here, also, is only the tip of the surreptitious iceberg. This is a problem that’s much greater than two pubescent lovers having a private channel of communication. You must know that the worst actors in society, those who prey on childish youth, know full well about this underground and its machinations. If you think that some sneaky texting, or even welcomed sexting, is the worst thing going on here….
Do your homework. Knowledge, still, is power.
Ed is a professor of cybersecurity, an attorney, and a trained ethicist. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.