Life-threatening ‘games’ lurking in the Dark Web

The ‘Blue Whale’ project exhibits a deeply sinister side effect of life in the digital age

'Hide Your Kids, Hide Your Wife!' was the internet 'joke du jour' in 2010 when Huntsville Alabama resident Antoine Dodson was interviewed by a local television news outlet about the attempted rape of his sister in the Lincoln Housing Project.

Despite the substance of the news report relating to an attempted rape, the internet gods determined its ultimate digital legacy would be catalogued in the 'comedy' section of the world's largest virtual video store, Google.

Let’s hope no one finds anything funny about the current internet-based horror story involving the death of almost 200 teenagers worldwide and counting. The ‘Blue Whale’ Challenge is an online ‘game’ – being played principally by teenagers – which is in essence a series of dares (50 in all) which participants must broadcast completing on various social media sites.

Beginning with relatively minor dares, such as watching gory horror movies to smoking marijuana and sneaking out of their parents’ house in the middle of the night, the game quickly turns more serious as dares begin to escalate. Those still ‘in the game’ after about a dozen tasks must carve a picture of a blue whale into their arms with a knife and film the act.

The 50th and final dare, however, is the most terrifying of all and, sadly, has been completed by approximately 200 players worldwide: suicide.

The ‘Blue Whale’ moniker comes from the natural phenomenon of blue whales apparently ‘beaching’ themselves deliberately in order to die.

The origins of the challenge have been traced back to Russia where the largest number of suicide victims have been reported. Around 150 players of the game in and around the largest country in the world have taken their own lives. Now a number of cases have arisen in both India and the United States.

Who would create, and subsequently perpetuate, such a ‘game’, knowingly and watch as the death toll – comprised mostly of vulnerable and impressionable teenagers – rises globally? That we may never know.

A more succinct question, therefore, is why greater security is yet to be put in place by companies like Google and Facebook to make it more difficult for vulnerable teenagers to access and participate in games like the 'Blue Whale' Challenge?

The ‘Data Rush’

The cold truth is that data is the most valuable currency on the digital market. The more data illustrating people’s behaviour online they can collect, the more money they can make from targeted marketing and advertising.

"I find it amazing how we have built complex data analytics systems that can interpret how an internet user is feeling, yet there is little or no interest in designing systems to determine how old a user is and whether the content they are searching for is age appropriate," said Prof Barry O'Sullivan, a co-director at the Insight Centre for Data Analytics in Ireland.

“It should be relatively straightforward to tell a 15-year-old from a 50-year-old based on the language they use, the things they “like” etc.”

The closest example we have here of dangerous digital ‘games’ going viral was the 2014 phenomenon ‘Neck Nomination’ – an online drinking game which resulted in at least five fatalities in the UK and Ireland.

“There is no question that social media has the power to make children and younger people do things that seem completely irrational, up to and including behaviour that could kill them,” said O’Sullivan in an interview about digital violence.

O’Sullivan and many other digital experts admit policing the internet is rife with ‘challenges’ of its own, not to mention virtually impossible (pun intended).

Still there are workable options available to engineers that could better regulate, say, the age of consent for certain websites. It is likely ‘Change Is Gonna Come’ in this space but not before the commercial and political will to do so exists. It’s imperative that this is tackled promptly.