Sneaky Camera Apps Teachers Should Know About

Sometimes called "ghost apps," a new crop of photo apps are being used to hide photos instead of share them.

November 10, 2015
Christine Elgersma
Common Sense Media Senior Editor, Apps and Digital Learning

CATEGORIES Digital Citizenship, Parents and Families

For kids, the joys of friendship are often expressed in the photos they share on social apps such as Snapchat, Instagram, and WhatsApp. These types of photos -- the group shot from a day at the beach, a selfie at the DMV or the prom -- document kids' lives and strengthen relationships. But as we all know, cell phone cameras can be misused, and a new crop of photo apps are being used to hide photos instead of share them. Sometimes called "ghost apps," these secret-camera and hidden-photo-vault apps let you snap pictures or video without anyone knowing and stash them in secret folders. Use of these apps for sexting is increasing in schools, including a Denver-area school in a situation that involved hundreds of students.

Apps such as Stealth Cam, Private Ninja Cam, and Top Secret Camera can be used to spy on people. Here are some of the methods they use to deceive the unsuspecting:

  • blanking the screen so no one knows you're taking a picture;
  • muting the phone so the shutter doesn't sound;
  • disguising the preview window so it looks like a Web browser; and
  • activating the camera to record via motion sensor.

Hidden-photo vaults, such as Calculator%, Keep Safe Private Photo Vault, and Best Secret Folder, are places to keep photos out of view from a prying parent or friend. They share key features, including: 

  • requiring a password for access; 
  • hiding their true purpose (fake calculator apps actually do function as calculators but double as a way to input a secret code and stash secret pictures); and
  • sounding an alarm or snapping a picture when accessed to catch anyone trying to break in.

Teens -- naturally seeking privacy and independence from adults -- could be tempted to experiment with these kinds of apps, such as the teen who was caught with an "upskirt" picture of his teacher. But they also might appeal to kids who don't have much to hide, so if you suspect a student of using a secret-camera app, don't freak out immediately. Instead, open a dialogue with parents and students about sexting and using phones responsibly.  

Share these tips with parents to help them get the conversation going with their teens:

  • Talk to your teens about using phones responsibly. Explain that you respect their privacy (if you don't, you could drive their activities underground). 
  • Remind them that taking and/or sharing embarrassing or revealing pictures often comes back to haunt people, so resist the temptation.
  • Consider that kids might not be trying to hide photos from you but from nosy friends. If that's the case, try to find out why.
  • If you need to do a spot check, on iPhones go into Settings -> Privacy -> Camera to see which apps have used the camera. This will reveal any camera apps disguised as something else.
  • Finally, consider that teens like to experiment with technology, and just because they have a secret-camera or hidden-photo-vault app, it doesn't mean they're up to no good.

For even more guidance on helping teens and parents talk about sexting and using phones responsibly, check out our Sexting Handbook or our Connecting Families conversation case and family tips sheet on sexting.