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How to Develop an Anonymous Social Networking App

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First time I opened Facebook it was like a fresh summer breeze in the medieval city, full of dull, leprosarium masks called avatars. It may seem strange now, but deanonymization is one of those key features that made Facebook so popular.

Deanonymization brought us all the benefits of communication via the internet. It allowed us to reveal our best selfs, convert avatar-based contacts into real-life friends. Facebook allowed us to communicate openly not only by words, but by pictures, notes, and videos. Social media apps allowed us to put part of real lives into the internet, without fear of being the only one who’ve done that.

Surely it was long before ego-centric social networking approach took control over our lives. Unfortunately, from now on virtual rules dominate over real-world us. From now on, we are obliged to build a happy-faced reality around us. We are required to buy beautiful clothes, go only to unique places, and eat a colorful food in order to make a selfie with a luxurious geotag in the center of Paris.

Deanonymization was great before virtual stalkers, bullies, bots, clones, CIA, Snowden, Equifax breach, and many other things that are trying to get into our real lives through the internet.

It is not surprising that anonymous social media sites and blogs like Reddit became so popular nowadays. There is a thick list of anonymous social networking sites like Whisper, Secret, YikYak, and Facebook Rooms spawned one after another. Even Bitcoin benefits from deanonymization fears.

Back in 2013 more than 80% of adult internet users have performed steps to avoid surveillance and ensure their anonymity. Ironically, only 37% of people believe that complete anonymity is possible.

What Kind of Anonymity Your Application Should Guarantee

A survey performed by the Pew Research Center in 2013 showed that 55% of internet users are seeking for a partial anonymity and only looking for ways to avoid observation by specific people, organizations, or the government.

Here are the most valuable types of information users strive to protect:

  1. Content of emails.
  2. Contacts users are emailing to.
  3. Content / files download.
  4. Location of user while he’s online.
  5. Content of online chats and messengers.

How to Develop Anonymous Social Network

Protect Private Information or Don’t Keep It At All

shy child

Let’s face the truth: all super secure apps fail. Yahoo failed, Uber failed, even CIA failed to keep some of its secrets. Calling yourself the most secure app in the world will only attract hackers and put your application in risk.

That is why once you approach a concept of anonymity you should decide what kind of data you want to protect. Which information does your anonymous social media site will contain and which refuse to accept? If you do want to protect your future users – store as little info as possible.

By the way, if you think encryption will save you from all troubles – just don’t! By encrypting everything you have on a back-end will drag you into a performance nightmare. Did you forget how a single Tinder user’s data request turned into 800 pages?

Secure Communication Channel

Secure Communication Channel

No matter how minimal your app will be you’ll have to store some data anyway. For example, an anonymous messenger will require a user id, contact list, activity history, messages. In order to prevent unauthorized access, we can keep this info encrypted, with two keys: public and private. This method sometimes used for a bribery in order to protect two sides anonymity.

The public key can be used to decrypt messages and contact names inside a chat. But there is also a private key, that can be used only by chat creators in order to post new messages. In fact, the name of a chat can be the public key itself. Thus anyone who knows the chat name can read it, but only few could write to it.

BTW, a popular cryptocurrency called Ethereum uses UserID as a public key.

Location Anonymizers

Sparkle Chat case

There are several ways to determine user’s location. The most accurate one is by using GPS that we described in our blog post about location-based social networking apps. The other one makes use of IP address. This method is less accurate but in conjunction with login time and device footprint, IP address can be and often used by authorities for deanonymization.

In order to confront this problem, you can use VPN networks, proxies or software like Tor, that defends against network surveillance and traffic analysis. Tor protects users by redirecting their communications through a distributed network of relays run by volunteers all around the world. If you want a 100% anonymous application we advise looking at Tor direction.

On the other hand, location and device footprints can be turned into good. Instead of tagging users by emails anonymous apps like Whisper generate a unique token that tagged with user’s device. This way, all posts, info, messages will be connected solely with the physical device. Aa a result nobody except device owner can get access to his profile.

Content Moderation

Whisper content moderation

Did you hear of Sarahah? An App launched in Saudi Arabia in fall 2016. The app was created to allow its members to leave anonymous messages on other users’ profiles. Its first intention was to allow corporate employees leave anonymous feedback on their managers’ performance.

The app has quickly become #1 in Apple App Store, beating Snapchat and Facebook. It gained unprecedented popularity in 30 countries including the USA, UK & France, more than 1/4 billion visitors and about 1 billion page views. As of August 2017, the app has more than 62 million users.

Unfortunately, such popularity comes with a price – too much user-generated content. In case of Sarahah (“honesty” in Arabic) too much offensive content. As a consequence, the anonymous app has quickly turned into a favorite place of cyberbullies and trolls.

sarahah app

What we can learn from Sarahah is that anonymity should be two-sided in order to fend off bullies. Turned out that 46% of online harassed users know their bullies. It’s either friends, family members, ex-partners, co-workers or acquaintances. Thus, anonymous social profiles can successfully deduce those bullies. Unless user pinpoints his real-self with the social profile.

User-generated content is a real nightmare for any social media anonymous platform. But don’t fall into despair! You probably heard of Whisper social media app, an anonymous network that successfully resists cyber bullies. Whisper fends off bullies thanks to the app’s focus on comment moderation via both artificial intelligence tools and a human moderation team. By the way, the application has raised about $61 000 000 recently, and happy in generating its revenues from ads.

Content Moderation Tools

tell no one

  • Must-Have: Internal CMS (Content Moderation System).
  • Must-Have: Report option with a further human moderation.
  • Must-Have: Basic explicit content moderation algorithm.
  • Volunteered content moderators (good for starters).
  • Geofencing that cuts fake accounts from certain locations.
  • Image / Video moderation with a help of machine learning.
  • Outsource content moderation to the company like Sykes.

Bottom Line

Building anonymous social apps may seem hard and pricey. Fortunately, there are already a lot of ready-made solution for basic functions like chat, news feed, user profiles, and notifications. The cost will rise only because of those anonymous features you’d like to add into your mobile application.

Let’s face the truth, 100% anonymity is obsolete. The goal is to find out an optimum between privacy protection and development costs it requires, and we’re here to give you a hand!

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