By Eric Pilgrim | Fort Knox NewsJanuary 22, 2020
Gabrielle Jackson knows the excitement and fun of social media networking, probably more than most. The 24-year-old has an active, vibrant following on some networks that would rival most casual users, including more than 8,000 followers on her Instagram account and over 200 on Twitch.
As a cybersecurity analyst for U.S. Army Human Resources Command, she also knows the dangers.
On her live-streaming Twitch shows, Jackson said she receives a lot of encouragement, but she invariably also receives suggestive, unwanted chatter.
"I don't dress provocatively on stream on purpose; I don't want the attention. But it really doesn't matter," said Jackson. "One guy in particular overseas once offered me $10,000 to sell him basically naked pictures."
She and others explained that the virtual landscape of online communications is changing so fast, it leaves many in the cybersecurity business scrambling to try and keep up. As a result, what gets left behind in the daily deluge of new and trendy are critical safeguards that parents and cybersecurity professionals alike assume are in place for children.
Take TikTok, for instance.
By all accounts, TikTok just might be THE place for teenagers. Oberlo.com names it the fastest growing social media platform so far this year at 500 million active users and climbing, ranking it ninth ahead of LinkedIn, Twitter, Pinterest and Shapchat. The short, punchy user-generated videos, which include live-streaming shows, are catching the eye of many around the world, including sexual predators, pedophiles and human traffickers.
Jackson said one major problem is that the average age on TikTok is about 13. This number infers there are children watching streaming videos and even producing them who are much younger than the minimum age required to join.
"There are policies against children younger than 13 getting on it, but that doesn't stop them from signing up," said Jackson.
TikTok's U.S. Terms of Service page states, "If you are under age 18, you may only use the Services with the consent of your parent or legal guardian. Please be sure your parent or legal guardian has reviewed and discussed these Terms with you."
Yet, according to The Sun newspaper in February of 2019, British children as young as 8 were being groomed by sexual predators through TikTok. Jackson said many of the streaming sites like TikTok provide tools for the wrong people to abuse children; like anonymity.
"Usually those people are anonymous on purpose. You can't see what they look like, and you can't figure out who they are," said Jackson. "Unless you report the account, they can send you anything."
The military has voiced concerns that TikTok is suspected of being used for other nefarious activities.
"It is considered a cyber threat," said Army spokeswoman Lt. Col. Robin Ochoa, during a Dec. 31, 2019, Military.com interview.
The cybersecurity Network Enterprise Center team at Fort Knox said this doesn't stop children from using the app, especially since its biggest draw involves short video clips. And a growing number of video and photo apps use a revolutionary new facial recognition software that allows users to pose as someone else. Known as Deepfake, the software created by ByteDance has grown in popularity exponentially.
"The Deepfake can basically superimpose your face onto any video, or any picture, or anything," said Richard Jackson, Cybersecurity Division chief. "It's getting more and more difficult to discern whether that's a real video or a fake video. The folks who are trying to ensure authenticity are outnumbered a-hundred-to-one by the folks who are trying to prevent you from determining the authenticity."
The list of apps using Deepfake is also growing as the technology gets better. These include Zao, AvengeThem, MachineTube, DeepFaceLab, Deep Art, Face Swap Live and Microsoft's Face Swap.
Richard Jackson said computer-generated imagery, popularly known as CGI, is at least partly to blame for these advances in technology. The need for moviemakers to produce breathtaking crowds, otherworldly scenes and phenomenal stunts has led to great advances in CGI generation. Computer cinematography has gotten so good, NVIDIA Corporation created a website last year called "This Person Does Not Exist," in which an AI algorithm generates what looks to be portraits of real people with every click of the mouse. According to the site, however, none of them exist in real life.
Many of the well-known social media apps have jumped on board with facial recognition and facial altering software, including Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat. As fun and hilarious as all these image altering apps can be for teens and adults alike, Richard Jackson warns of a sinister potential hidden within.
"Some of those apps have actually been known to send your pictures other places," he said. "They're mining pictures off of your phone as you're using their app, or targeting ads to you."
Gabrielle Jackson said several apps are produced in foreign countries, posing inherent problems.
"We don't know what's in these kinds of apps," said Gabrielle Jackson. "With any kind of app that's made in another country that we can't 100% verify, or even any app made in the USA that we can't verify as being secure, a lot of times security is on the backburner on purpose."
Even the most common apps can have features and "standard" policies that most users are completely unaware of.
Brian Delap, an Information Assurance Compliance tech with Fort Knox NEC, warns that everything produced on Facebook is considered the property of Facebook, to include photos, videos and information.
"That's in their End Users License Agreement," said Delap. "So if you take a picture of your family and post it, don't be surprised if you go to Europe and your family is on a billboard."
Delap said it's for this reason that he doesn't have a social media footprint: that, and because technology is constantly in flux.
"It's hard to keep up," said Delap. "Every 10 minutes it changes."
Eric Groves, a 25-year-old IT specialist on Richard Jackson's team, said Facebook's controls are at least one reason why many teens are ditching the older social media platforms for new up-and-coming platforms that promise vanishing posts and anonymity.
"The whole family has Facebook, so kids may feel like they're being censored. They're going to Snapchat, TikTok, Twitter; stuff like that, where it has less of a family presence," said Groves. "Facebook is less anonymous, but a lot of other apps support anonymous platforms that kids might tend to shift towards."
Ironically, all social media apps are heading in the same direction with facial recognition and other fun features, said Groves, largely due to growing popularity by teens and pre-teens that make the newer apps appealing.
"Even though one feature is popular in TikTok now, it's very likely that that feature will be duplicated very quickly across all platforms," said Groves.
What many teens don't realize, said Gabrielle Jackson, is that criminals who seek to harm them go where the children go. Those same criminals are taking advantage of the anonymous features built into the apps that appeal to children, making it extremely difficult to know who is legitimate online.
Even worse, according to Delap: "Parents have no clue what their kids are listening to, or who they're talking to. It can get pretty scary out there, and if you do it or say it, it stays out there."
Delap warned that the gaming world is another hotbed of potential for criminals to try and lure children; whether that game is Fortnite or Minecraft.
"Any game where kids congregate, you're going to have the creepies going around looking for them," said Delap.
LaTrice Thomas, an IT specialist with Fort Knox NEC, said locater services add another layer of real danger within certain social media apps.
"Snapchat has this thing that if a youth or adult adds where they live, Snapchat creates a map of what general area they're located in," said Thomas. "It makes it easy to find people."
Both Gabrielle Jackson and the cybersecurity team at the Fort Knox Network Enterprise Center offer some suggestions to help parents and children have a safe, fun social media experience. The list is by no means an exhaustive one:
• Be cautious about what apps you download -- find out where they originate; read about them from other sources
• Turn off the locater feature in your smartphone -- it lets others know where you are
• When gaming, turn off in-game chat
• Use an anonymous username if possible; don't let others know who you are
• Use an avatar or symbolic image (flower, colorful object) for a profile picture
• Block unwanted users quickly
• Post a "No DMs (direct messaging) accepted" announcement on your profile page, and shut down the feature, if possible
• Lock down your profile, if feasible, so others must request a follow to see your information; then screen all followers before accepting them
• Don't check into places you visit when traveling; turn off geotagging on photos
• Don't link social media sites together; it makes it easy to data mine you
• Be smart with security questions and passwords; don't be obvious
Gabrielle Jackson said the heart of awareness is protection -- safeguarding children.
"Sometimes, kids film themselves to songs that they don't necessarily understand the words to, or they're dancing as kids do, and what might be innocent to them is actually enticing predators," said Gabrielle Jackson. "Oftentimes, parents don't even know because there are no parental controls set up."
A mother of a little one, Gabrielle said she would not allow her child to use some of the apps that many children are into these days. But if you do --
"Talk to your children. Make sure you have open communication with them," said Gabrielle Jackson. "Oftentimes, predators try to brainwash children, and they know how to persuade them -- they've done it before. Explain those real dangers to your kids and the need to take precautions. Then help them take those precautions.
"Talk to your children."