A popular mobile game that randomly selects photos from players’ camera rolls is leading to some cringeworthy moments for teens and privacy panics for parents.
Photo Roulette, a free app for iOS and Android devices, came out a few years ago but only recently caught fire: In October, for the first time, it was the most downloaded iPhone game in the U.S.
Here’s how it works: A player invites up to 49 friends to join the game, and players grant the app access to their phones’ photo albums. The app selects a picture from one phone, totally at random, and displays it to everyone for five seconds; other players have to guess who it came from. The player with the most correct guesses after 15 rounds wins.
To adults, the risks might seem obvious. But to many kids, it’s just seen as a fun game—until a sensitive photo pops up.
Perhaps most troubling to teens are the suggestive photos, memes and texts that appear. Some teens told me that nude photos and screenshots of flirtatious text messages with other teens have popped up during games.
Sometimes, it’s personal data. Cadence Messier, a 17-year-old in Gilbert, Ariz., was invited by friends to play Photo Roulette about two weeks ago. “I was kind of freaked out by it so I went to my camera roll to make sure there wasn’t anything embarrassing and I didn’t see anything too bad,” she said.
But when she joined the game, the app displayed a photo of her Social Security number. Cadence’s mom had once texted her a photo of it when she needed it to sign up for the SAT. Cadence hadn’t noticed it among her 10,000+ shots. When Cadence told her parents what happened, they were worried.
Her mother, Lori, said the episode made her rethink texting sensitive data, especially a picture. “It never dawned on me that anyone else could see it or share it,” she said. “It’s concerning not knowing who’s behind the app and what they are doing with the information.”
page, through direct messages on LinkedIn or through direct messages to their personal Facebook pages.
After this column ran, however, I received an email reply signed “the Photo Roulette Team.”
“We designed Photo Roulette for people to play with their close friends and family. We want everyone to have a fun and safe experience when playing and have multiple measures in place to ensure this,” the company’s statement read. This includes an age-16 requirement and explicit approval of new players in a user’s game. “As you point out in your article,” the statement continued, “we cannot control the photos that are shared during a round of Photo Roulette.”
It isn’t surprising that Photo Roulette got through the vetting process of
and Google’s app stores: Just as with messaging apps, the images shared with Photo Roulette aren’t made public outside the group and aren’t necessarily the responsibility of the developer to police.
SHARE YOUR THOUGHTS
Would you let your teens play a game that draws random photos from their camera rolls? Join the conversation below.
Regarding personal data, the company’s belated comment read, “Users’ photos are only used as part of the gameplay, and not shared with anyone outside the group of players. The photos are deleted from our servers as soon as the round is over. We do not monetize the photos or photo metadata in any way, nor will we ever do so.”
The app raises money through ads and in-app purchases. By paying a flat $4.99, players can remove ads, select their own pics to send instead of having them randomly pulled and play a video version of the game. Players can also pay $2.99 for individual features.
The app has surged in popularity in recent months. Photo Roulette became the number one game by daily iPhone downloads in the U.S. on Oct. 23, up from number 318 the week before, according to app analytics firm App Annie Ltd., and has remained in the top 40 daily game downloads on iPhone devices in the U.S. since then. The game has been downloaded nine million times globally this year through Dec. 11 across the App Store and Google Play; 70% of the downloads have been generated since Oct. 23.
“Risk-taking is a part of childhood development, so there is something inherently fun in it. You’re also bonding over your devices and what’s on them, but I have never seen another game quite like this,” Ms. Elgersma said. “Maybe this is a new frontier of sharing stuff that’s on our phones.”
a 20-year-old college student from Spokane, Wash., was playing Photo Roulette with her cousins, uncle and father during a road trip recently when a selfie she had taken a few years ago came up in the game. She was wearing tight jeans, with her back side facing a mirror. “I’m from a really conservative family and it was a little embarrassing,” Emma said. “When that picture came up, my dad looked at me a little funny.”
of Orange County, Calif., learned about the game when her 15-year-old daughter, Haley, and some friends were talking about it during a car ride. She asked them if they were OK with people they don’t know having access to their camera roll. They shrugged.
“Kids think it’s a fun game and they don’t think about the consequences,” Julie said.
“I get where she’s coming from, but if this app was selling our photos, wouldn’t someone have found out about it already and reported this app?” Haley said.
“The younger generation is more trusting and everything is open all the time,” her mother said. “I appreciate that they want to be open with each other but I think they need to be aware of security and privacy.”
Of course, the allure of the game is how it distills teenage anxiety in an unprecedented way.
a 17-year-old in Johnstown, Pa., was initially reluctant to play along when some classmates invited him, because he said he was self-conscious about his complexion and has some close-up photos of his face on his camera roll. But he found it fun.
wasn’t amused. “I’m not familiar with this app, but I do talk to my kids about the dangers of technology and how hackers are getting smarter. There are data breaches all the time,” she said.
Gabe said he isn’t too worried about possible privacy ramifications and that he’ll play it again. “In my situation it’s not concerning because I don’t have anything harmful to my reputation in my camera roll,” he said.
Still, there was one embarrassing moment in the game: A screenshot of a text exchange he’d had about a dispute with a friend came up. “It’s that awkward part of the game that makes it what it is,” he said.
Write to Julie Jargon at firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright ©2019 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved. 87990cbe856818d5eddac44c7b1cdeb8