Nicky Minaj

Israeli anonymous text app raises alarms for parents, politicians

The anonymous text app Blindspot stirs public criticism and controversy in Israel.

TEL AVIV, ISRAEL (JANUARY 26, 2016) (REUTERS) – An Israeli anonymous messaging app billed as providing a voice to those who are too shy or scared to communicate openly has set off alarms among parents and politicians who see in it a stealth weapon for cyber-bullying.

The controversy seems to have done little to dent Blindspot, which boasts 700,000 users – including in the United States and Britain – since its December 25 launch and argues it is being singled out for censure in part because of celebrity links to its staff.

Yet critics appear determined to see Blindspot go the way of, a similar U.S. app that shut down last year with its founder acknowledging complaints that abusive messaging turned social-media anonymity into “the ultimate double-edged sword”.

Blindspot users register with their phone numbers, which are withheld from texts they send to recipients who, prompted by SMS, must themselves download the free app to read the messages.

The easy interface and rakish logo that has festooned billboards in Tel Aviv – a winking smiley-face with an eye-patch – suggest a young target market. Blindspot’s disclaimer says users under the age of 16 should have parental permission.

That may not be forthcoming. A welter of media exposes and chatroom critiques accuse Blindspot of helping create a virtual schoolyard where bullies threaten and mock without comeuppance.

Michael Bob, a Tel Aviv High School student, is one example of the potential misuse of the app.

“I use it a lot, I curse all the people who I hate and the one I love I also curse…because I can,” Bob said as he giggled to his friends standing nearby.

Others, like Dan Sher and Omer Kasuto, were critical of the potentially harmful app.

“People feel free to be anonymous and tell whatever they want even if it hurts and I disagree with that,” said Dan Sher who said he has refrained from installing the app.

“It’s hurtful and demeaning to people and people curse me and threaten me a lot. I’m really scared from it sometimes,” said another student, Omer Kasuto.

Much of the blowback has focussed on Dor Refaeli, a staffer with, and sometime front man for, the app’s Herzliya-based parent company, the Shellanoo Group. He is also the brother of Israel’s Instagram-savvy top model, Bar Refaeli.

“We see it as something positive, I use it for positive things, beyond which, it’s simply a game,” Refaeli told Israel’s Ynet Website and added “There’s no such thing, a bad application, there’s such a thing as bad people”.

In a statement circulated by local media, Refaeli complained of being hit with hundreds of abusive messages – including via Blindspot – after a protester published his phone number online.

Blindspot, Refaeli said, was conceived to allow people from the gay-lesbian community, battered women, children in distress and so forth to anonymously seek help.

Guy Lerer, Television host of Israel’s Ch.10 popular program ‘Tzinor Layla’, launched a Facebook campaign titled ‘Dor, shut down,’ calling on Refaeli to shut down the app.

“We went straight ahead to one of the managers of the application, he’s the brother of a well-known model in Israel, his name is Dor Refaeli, and we said to him maybe you had good intentions but the result is very bad and a lot, as we said, of bullying and a lot of complaints by kids and just told him, tried to tell him, close it, shut down the app because it will bring no good,” Lerer said.

The call has been echoed by some Israeli lawmakers, as well as by parents’ associations that urged members not to allow their children to download the app.

Yaniv Shahar, a father of elementary children and active educator, called on government bodies to get involved.

“You can use the Internet for good things and for bad things and you have to put boundaries and limits for the use of the technology and I think this is the place where the parents and governments and institutions must take step and say what is right and what is wrong,” said Sahar, adding that children are unpredictable when they get offended.

“They have to understand the risks of using these kind of apps that can offend people and you don’t know what people are going to say especially children, what they are going to do if they are offended by a lot of kids in their classroom or by their friends or whatever”.

A free, Israeli-designed counter-app, Safe Spot, alerts parents to use of Blindspot by their children, though it is only available for Android phones.

“Safe Spot is an app that blocks and notifies the parents about anonymous messaging…the parents get notified if the children install such an app and also the content of the message is being blocked by Safe Spot,” said Nimrod Back, a serial entrepreneur, who developed Safe Spot.

Blindspot has become Israel’s most downloaded social networking app in the last month, according to market research firm AppAnnie. Shellanoo deems the flak over the app misplaced.

Company spokesman David Strauss noted that Blindspot offers a block function: a user blocked three times by message recipients can no longer use the app with his or her phone number. Abuse can also be flagged to the company, something Strauss said so far happened with fewer than 1 percent of around 50 million texts sent over Blindspot.

Israel is zeroing on cyber-bullying as part of a new Internal Security Ministry unit for fighting online crime such as messages that constitute defamation or breaches of privacy.