A popular mobile game app called Photo Roulette is raising concerns about kids' privacy and security. Here's the scoop.

By Maressa Brown
December 19, 2019
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Illustration by Parents Staff; Getty Images (5)

2019 might have been the year that parents caught wind of their kids' TikTok obsession. But the social app is far from the only one causing a stir right now. Enter Photo Roulette, a free mobile game app for iOS and Android devices that became the most downloaded iPhone game in the U.S. in October, according to The Wall Street Journal.

Most social networks and games give a user their choice of photo to share with others, but everyone knows that roulette is a game of chance. And that's exactly what this appropriately-named app is, which is why it's firing up parents' concern.

Here's everything you need to know.

How Photo Roulette Works

The app, which was developed by three friends in Oslo, Norway, all of whom have tech backgrounds, invites a player to invite up to 49 friends to join their game. Then, players grant the app access to their phones' camera roll. The app chooses one shot from one phone at random and displays it to everyone in the game for five seconds. Players have to guess who took the shot. Whoever has the most correct guesses out of 15 rounds wins.

The safety measures the app currently has in place: Upon signing up, users must read a warning that says to make sure your camera roll doesn't contain private or sensitive information, the app requires users to check a box accepting the privacy policy and that they are at least 16 years old, and there's explicit approval of new players in a user’s game.

Photo Roulette Privacy Concerns

Not only is it concerning that the app will have access to a user's entire photo roll—which might be full of nothing but cute pics of dogs and scrunchies, but could also include sensitive, compromising material—but the WSJ reports that within the app’s privacy policy, the company will keep a person’s photo on its servers for 24 hours. Other information Photo Roulette keeps includes social media insights for up to six months. The app also sells a player’s metadata to third parties. And according to KnowTechie.com, there are no details on the company’s security infrastructure.

How It's Affected Teens So Far

WSJ reporter Julie Jargon said teens told her that nude photos and screenshots of flirtatious text messages with other teens have popped up during games. Personal data is also vulnerable. A 17-year-old from Arizona named Cadence Messier started playing the game two weeks ago, telling the newspaper, "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."

When she started playing, the app pulled a photo of her Social Security number. That's because her mom had once texted her a photo of it when she need it to sign up for her SATs.

Her mom Lori told Jargon, "It never dawned on me that anyone else could see it or share it. It’s concerning not knowing who’s behind the app and what they are doing with the information."

And another mother named Julie Bundy of Orange County, California found out about the game when her 15-year-old Haley was talking about it with her friends during a car ride. Bundy asked her daughter and her friends if they were OK with the security concerns the app poses, and they shrugged. “Kids think it’s a fun game and they don’t think about the consequences,” Bundy said.

What the Photo Roulette Developers Say

Although the developers didn't initially respond to requests for comment from the WSJ, they sent the following statement after the story was published:

"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. As you point out in your article, we cannot control the photos that are shared during a round of Photo Roulette."

They went on to address security concerns, stating, "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." (That said, there are in-app purchases: For $4.99, you can remove ads, select your own photos to send instead of having them pulled at random, and play a video version of the game. You can also pay $2.99 for individual features.)

The Bottom Line From Online Security Experts

Jordan Bissell, digital communications coordinator for the parental control app Bark, wrote in a recent blog on the app, "Even if your child and their friends have squeaky-clean photo libraries, that doesn’t mean every photo that appears will be harmless. Some users have reported seeing inappropriate images that don’t belong to anyone in the game. Because of this, it might be impossible for players to ensure that they won’t be exposed to troubling content."

Christine Elgersma, who reviews social media apps for Common Sense Media, added in her interview with the WSJ that Photo Roulette's privacy policy might be problematic because "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."

Bissell says parents can take heart in the fact that in the app’s current version, Photo Roulette doesn’t allow players to randomly match up with each other. "Instead, users invite other people by sharing an invite code," she notes. "Unless your child posts their invite code online, only people they know personally will be able to play the game with them. That means there's less of a danger that a stranger's inappropriate photo will appear on your child’s screen."

Another point that concerned parents should bear in mind: Risk-taking is just a part of childhood development, and kids are bonding over their devices and what's on them, according to Elgersma. As she concluded, "Maybe this is a new frontier of sharing stuff that’s on our phones."

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