NokNok. Who’s There? A Tweaked App and Privacy Issues

Latest hit app lets you know what your friends call you in their contact lists.

Bloomberg

A new twist on an app, which enables users to see what their friends call them in their contact lists, is the latest hit among Israeli surfers — and it has quickly raised concerns about privacy.

Anyone using Facebook in the past few days could not avoid encountering the NokNok app, which has doubled its user base to 400,000 in the past few days. It’s the product of Chief Executive Idan Bechor, partnering with David Sheetrit, son of Member of Knesset Meir Sheetrit.

NokNok began in 2012 as a phone app that enabled users to make free calls even to people who had not downloaded the app. A later version could identify a caller in real time. And this latest version, which became available a month ago on Android phones and two weeks ago on iPhones, went viral.

The app makes use of a tool called Reputation, which was embedded in the older app. It enables users to see how they’re labeled in their friends’ contact lists. And if someone’s calling you a name you don’t like, you can ask him or her to change your name in his or her list.

“Did you ever wonder what they really think of you?” NokNok’s Facebook page asks. “NokNok will show you not only the name and photo of anyone calling you but [what] they call you on their contact list.”

In just a few days, with no media exposure, NokNok has become the most popular item in Apple’s App Store in Israel and has reached third-most-popular in the Google Play Store for Android.

Arad Akikous, who is in charge of research and strategy for the app, says it started as part of closed Whatsapp groups for children.

“Note that the screen on the Reputation app doesn’t mention NokNok,” he says. “Everyone noticed the screen and started asking what it was. Nobody understood it, but then some started replying, identifying it as NokNok. The fact that it wasn’t written there only added to the buzz.”

With the app’s success came concern about invasion of privacy. This is not new to Bechor, since he also headed the MeZeZe app, which enabled users to identify callers. That app raised concerns among users, and among agencies such as the Israel Police, which in an internal memo warned its staff not to download such apps. MeZeZe ultimately fizzled.

Akikous dismissed such concerns regarding the latest app and its caller identification. “I only display the names of people who have registered,” he says. “If you don’t download the app, I won’t inform your mother how you call her. If you don’t want it, don’t download the app.”

He added that all the information comes from open sources like Facebook. If users request by email, NokNok will delete them from the database.

The app’s Facebook page contains many posted complaints relating to what users say is the app collecting excessive personal data from users.

“European directives for protection of privacy include principles of transparency and minimization,” Jonathan Klinger, a Tel Aviv attorney who deals with technology and privacy issues, told Haaretz. “In other words, I have to be informed of any use of information relating to myself before such use. One can’t just use information at will.”

Asked whether this directive is relevant to Israel, Klinger said, “Not exactly, but this directive is one way of interpreting the law for protection of privacy, since we work together with Europe.”

NokNok used to notify outside people who called active NokNok users. But some of them complained after they received several of those messages and a few threatened to sue the company for sending spam.

Klinger added that “there is a database here which contains problematic information with insufficient transparency. There is information about minors without obtaining parental consent. Don’t think of children who downloaded the app, but of parents who downloaded apps with the phone numbers of their children’s classmates. This is all set up in a way which does not address privacy concerns.”