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It's commonplace for teenagers to keep some secrets from their parents. Parents walk a thin line between concern for their children and giving them a healthy amount of privacy.

Today's children and teens have access to technology that prior generations--even kids from the early 1990s--didn't have access to. Having limitless information at their fingertips might give children a false sense of maturity.

There are dark corners of the internet that are made to look attractive to teens desiring independence or privacy.

With those dangers in mind, British authorities and US District Attorney Pamela Casey are warning parents about "vault apps." Parents are asked to be aware that their kids might be hiding photos, videos, and texts that they don't want seen.

SEE: Android security and privacy starter kit

Smartphone vault apps aren't new and have pragmatic uses. The apps are practical ways to password-protect photos, videos, texts, and other sensitive files.

One app in particular that Casey and authorities named was the Calculator% app. In April, authorities confirmed the app is part of an undisclosed police investigation. Shortly after the announcement, the app was pulled from the App Store.

The app's icon and initial display look like most calculator apps available for download. The digital veil lifts when the user types a password or swipe their finger in a special pattern. The calculator decoy disappears and reveals a secret storage space.

Online safety experts were specifically concerned that teens might be using the app to sext, storing and trading sexual images.

"I've had parents tell me about how they've found the calculator app on their kids' phone and discovered that they were hiding pictures that the parents were shocked that their kids even took," April Requard, a professional learning specialist told the Daily Mail.

The removal of the Calculator% app doesn't signal the end of vault apps, merely the need for parents to start having conversations with their kids. There are dozens of other vault apps that are free, or available at a low price, for download.

Other vault apps have similar features to Calculator% like decoy mode, password protection, a private contact list, a private browser, and "intrusion alert" that takes a photo of anyone who tries to get into the app and enters the wrong password.

Parents can find vault apps by doing a search in Google Play for the App Store using keywords like "vault," "secret," or "hidden." On your child's phone, if the app in the store says "Open," instead of "Get," it means the app is installed.

It can be difficult to start a conversation about online safety with a teenager. Parents might worry that their teen will pull away or rebel if approached. Despite not growing up with social media and a smartphone in their hand, parents can offer valuable advice and life experiences for their teens.

One thing your teen needs to know, especially if they're using a vault app to sext, is that the encryption status of these apps is relatively unknown. This means, even if a personal photo or video is "vaulted," the items might be vulnerable to hackers.

Teens should also know that as soon as you send the material to another person, nothing is stopping that person from using it nefariously.

There are apps a parent can install on their smartphone that have a companion app for the child's phone. Some of these apps make it to where any app download requires parental approval.

Google and Apple iOS 12 have ways for parents to monitor their child's screen time or remotely shut off their smartphone.

The best way to start though, is often to talk to your teen about the potential dangers of vault apps and work toward digital safety together.

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Takeaways

  1. Authorities are warning parents to be on the lookout for disguised vault apps on their children's smartphones. Vault apps let the user secretly store images and video.
  2. Parents can install controls on their smartphone to monitor their child's activities, but it's also important to educate teens about online safety.

Also see

How to deter hackers: Follow these digital safety best practices (TechRepublic)

Shelby is an Associate Writer for CNET's Download.com. She served as Editor in Chief for the Louisville Cardinal newspaper at the University of Louisville. She interned as Creative Non-Fiction Editor for Miracle Monocle literary magazine. Her work appears in Glass Mountain Magazine, Bookends Review, Soundings East, and on Louisville.com. Her cat, Puck, is the best cat ever.