There's plenty to be scared of on the Internet today. Malware. Phishing. YouTube comments. But one thing you don't need to be afraid of is "Talking Angela," a totally harmless iOS and Android app that has become the center of a viral Facebook hoax.
Despite what people passing along warning messages say, "Talking Angela" is not a front for pedophiles. It's just a harmless app of a talking cat — and, unintentionally, a lesson in why you shouldn't believe everything you read on Facebook.
"Talking Angela" is a free smartphone app that lets kids "talk" with an animated cat named Angela. Similar to a chat bot, Angela has some basic artificial intelligence that allows it to respond to simple inquiries, and if you give the app access to your device's camera, it can do some basic facial and gesture recognition as well. The app also has some in-app payments, but that's about as insidious as "Talking Angela" gets.
Yet "Talking Angela" has become the app that launched a thousand hysterical Facebook reposts, which claim that the app's computer-generated responses are actually pedophiles conversing with your children, and that the app uses the iOS or Android device's camera to spy on your children and your home.
"Take this app off your phone please! There's a big chance this could be a door for pedophiles. The police said they have seen things *like* this but never actually through a child's app, but that they are not putting it past them! ... These things AREN'T supposed to ask you questions!!!" reads one particularly hysterical Facebook post.
This scare has been around since February of last year, and even has its own page on the rumor debunking site Snopes.
"You shouldn't believe the warnings. And, in particular, you shouldn't share the bogus alert to your own friends and family," wrote security expert Graham Cluley on his blog. "All you are doing is perpetuating a scare that is without foundation."
The developers, U.K.-based Outfit7, have also added a "child mode" for the app that disables the chat bot feature. In child mode, the app "can respond only to touch and repeat what she hears over the microphone, similar to other apps within the 'Talking Tom and Friends' series" that are also made by Outfit7, the studio wrote on a FAQ on its website.
How one group of pedophiles could spy on all 230 million users of "Talking Angela" and the rest of the "Talking Tom and Friends" apps is a mystery all its own. That hasn't stopped thousands of people from emailing and reposting ridiculous warnings "just in case."
It's probable that genuine concern, if misguided and misinformed, started this "Talking Angela" scare. However, this kind of fearmongering is far more harmful than the app around which it centers.
For one, actual cybercriminals often use fear-baiting tactics like this one to trick people into clicking on bad links. If scammers haven't already created some malicious emails disguised as warnings about the evils of "Talking Angela," you can bet they're coming soon.
U..K.-based security company Sophos advises people to be skeptical of anything they see on Facebook or in a chain email, particularly if it contains as many spelling errors and hyperbolic exclamations as these do. (We cleaned up the one quoted above.)
"Hoaxes can be well-written, and truth can be written badly. But when everything about a written article screams, 'Why would I believe this?' then, to ask an obvious question, why would you believe it?," Sophos wrote on its blog Naked Security.
"Just in case" is not a good reason to forward anything and everything that comes across your screen, Sophos adds.
If you're worried about an app or other potential online concern, check it out yourself. If you don't like anything about it, don't let your kids use it.
As Sophos concludes in its post, "security is a journey, not a destination." Doing your own research and being informed about new technologies and trends is far better in the long run than hitting "repost" and spreading misinformation.
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Jill Scharr is a creative writer and narrative designer in the videogame industry. She's currently Project Lead Writer at the games studio Harebrained Schemes, and has also worked at Bungie. Prior to that she worked as a Staff Writer for Tom's Guide, covering video games, online security, 3D printing and tech innovation among many subjects.