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Canada’s child safety watchdog warns parents about Wizz, a Tinder-like app for teens | #childsafety | #kids | #chldern | #parents | #schoolsafey


Canada’s watchdog for child exploitation issued a warning to parents Tuesday about Wizz, a Tinder-like app for teens, after it reappeared in Apple’s app store.

Cybertip.ca, the tip line run by the Canadian Centre for Child Protection, known as C3P, published a release telling parents that they should consider removing Wizz from their children’s phones.

The organization, which is designated by Canada’s government to collect information about allegations of child sexual exploitation, said that it had received over 180 reports about Wizz since 2021 and that reports spiked tenfold in 2023 from the previous year.

“Of these reports, 91% concerned sextortion, with males victimized in 93% of cases when gender was known. The majority of victims reported to Cybertip.ca were between 15 — 17 years old,” the release said.

In response to the warning, a Wizz representative said in a statement, “We know we have a higher standard of duty and care for our users, given that Wizz is creating online communities for a teenage audience. That is why we built Wizz from the ground up to be safe; and every day we seek to make it safer.”

The warning comes just days after Wizz was reinstated in Apple’s App Store. As of Wednesday morning, the app still wasn’t available on Google’s app store. Google and Apple didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.

The Wizz app allows users to scroll through profiles that show people’s pictures, first names, ages, states and zodiac signs. Wizz advertises the app as a “safe space” to meet new friends and allows users as young as 13 to join and connect with users of similar ages. 

In January, Wizz was removed from the Google and Apple app stores after the National Center on Sexual Exploitation, or NCOSE, reached out to the companies in January with concerns relating to sextortion and other online safety issues with Wizz. NCOSE highlighted reports of sextortion made to tip lines like C3P that they said were associated with Wizz.

Wizz said it accelerated its product road map after the app store removals to prioritize several changes related to child safety, which it implemented and demonstrated to Apple before the app was restored in the app store. The changes included in-app warnings when contact information is requested in chats, educational materials about safety, and mandatory profile verification, which is meant to ensure that a person’s profile photo matches a selfie taken during registration.

A Wizz representative said Tuesday the changes would help ensure that users aren’t moved to different platforms where Wizz has no control over behavior. “We lose control when users leave the platform, so we are working hard to keep that from happening,” a representative said in an email.

According to the U.S.-based National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, or NCMEC, reports about sextortion that allegedly occurred via Wizz frequently mentioned that initial connections were made on Wizz, before minors were moved to different platforms, a pattern of behavior that has been used on various social media platforms, according to experts and law enforcement officials. Wizz has said its moderation system prevents the transmission of sexually explicit images on the app.

In an interview shortly before the app was reinstated to Apple’s app store, Wizz CEO Aymeric Roffé said he welcomed the temporary removals and the review process.

“We don’t want to take any risks,” he said. “Remove the app, then we take the time to investigate, demonstrate the security and safety measures that we have are sufficient, and then put back the app on the store.” 

The company says it uses a third party, Yoti, for age verification, which Wizz says prevents adults from interacting with minors. Roffé emphasized that the company uses other checks to try to prevent exploitation, including comparing verification selfies with profile picture images and textual and photo analysis of content that is sent on the app.

Roffé said the age verification processes are largely algorithmic, with some reviews by humans. According to Wizz, the company employs a 20-person team that reviews content that has been flagged.

NBC News reported in July that NCMEC had received more than 100 reports of alleged sextortion that involved Wizz since the beginning of 2023, putting the app behind only Snapchat and Instagram in terms of volume for such reports.

A Network Contagion Reseach Institute report last month identified the Wizz app among those most often used by cybercriminals to target minors and engage in what’s known as “financial sextortion.” The group is a nonprofit organization devoted to identifying and forecasting “cyber-social threats.”

According to the FBI, sextortion is “a crime that involves adults coercing kids and teens into sending explicit images online.” Cybercriminals then threaten their victims with wide distribution of the explicit images, including to the victims’ friends and families, unless the victims send money through a variety of peer-to-peer payment apps, cryptocurrency transfers or gift cards. 

Since 2021, at least 20 minors who were sextortion victims died by suicide, according to the FBI. The FBI didn’t specify what platforms were connected to the suicides or whether all the victims were from the U.S.

Besides the sextortion issues, child safety advocates had criticized Wizz for allegedly exposing minors to mature content and ads that were inappropriate, or even pornographic, and shouldn’t have appeared in their feeds.

Responding to the claims, a Wizz representative said that its ad partners prohibit sexual content but that “this wasn’t enough, so Wizz recently implemented a secondary layer of ad screening.”

Child safety groups have also called Wizz’s moderation and verification processes into question. Cybertip.ca said in its release Tuesday that in tests, women in their 20s were able to make profiles posing as 16-year-old boys, which would allow them to interact with minors on the app.

Responding to the claim, a Wizz representative said: “Our multiple safeguards work together like a safety mesh, so that in those rare situations that happen beyond our intended boundaries, our other safeguards provide backup layers of security. We are working diligently to continuously improve the app, and will be introducing additional security features on an ongoing basis.”

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