#parent | #kids | Photo Roulette, the Hot App That Makes Teens Cringe and Parents Fret


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.

A photo of Cadence Messier’s Social Security number came up when she was playing Photo Roulette.



Photo:

Cadence Messier

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.”

The app was created by three friends in Oslo, Norway, with tech backgrounds. The men didn’t respond to emails sent to addresses listed in the app’s privacy policy, on its

Facebook

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

Apple

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.

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Apple says it requires app developers to describe how they will use photo data when requesting access to users’ photos libraries. A notice appears on the screen when players sign up, warning them to make sure their photo library doesn’t contain private or sensitive information; players have to check a box saying they accept the privacy policy and that they are at least 16 years old.

In addition to collecting players’ usernames, photos and the metadata from the photos (such as the year and location when photos were taken), the app also may collect information about players from public databases and social media profiles, according to its privacy policy. The app maker says it may share players’ information with third parties. A player’s photos are removed from other players’ devices after the game is over but can remain on the app developer’s servers for 24 hours. Other personal information about players can be retained for six months.

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.”

Photo Roulette randomly selects and displays photos from players’ camera rolls; players have to guess whose photos they are.



Photo:

Photo Roulette

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.

Christine Elgersma,

who reviews social media apps for Common Sense Media, says the privacy policy raises red flags. “If the metadata from the photos is combined with your social media profile, it’s a bigger peek into your privacy than you may have intended.”

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.

Emma Romney said she was embarrassed when an old selfie showed up while she was playing Photo Roulette with relatives.



Photo:

Emma Romney

“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.”

Emma Romney,

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.”

Julie Bundy

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.”

Gabe Zimmerman said the awkward moments that can happen while playing Photo Roulette are part of the fun.



Photo:

Gabe Zimmerman

Of course, the allure of the game is how it distills teenage anxiety in an unprecedented way.

Gabe Zimmerman,

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.

His mother,

Tanya Kvarta,

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 julie.jargon@wsj.com

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