SnapChat enhancements make snaps less fleeting, riskier

Around my town, it’s not uncommon at all these days to see teenagers downtown stop in mid stride, arms extended, to snap a “selfie” (or self portrait) with their smart phone. If you didn’t know better, you might think this was a case of mass hysteria—a narcissistic twist on the Salem Witch Trials. If you’re of a certain age, however, you know the compulsive “selfie snapping” is a telltale sign of a snap-chatter.

SnapChat, of course, is that massively popular messaging and picture sharing service that you’ve never heard of and have absolutely no use for if you’re under the age of, say, 17. The two-year-old photo messaging service is the brainchild of Evan Spiegel and Bobby Murphy, who are described as “two Stanford guys who love building cool things.”

Using it, you can send photos or videos of yourself with witty captions to friends who “follow you” (Twitter style) as well as post “Stories” or series of photos or videos to your SnapChat profile.

When you take a “snap,” you can decide how long you want it to be viewable—up to ten seconds. When you send that photo or video to a friend, they can open it and view it for the length of time you specified, after which it is deleted from SnapChat’s servers and from the receiving mobile device.

In short, SnapChat is publicity ... with privacy. And that’s a killer feature for today’s tween-agers and teenagers, who are desperate to “be famous,” even in a small way, and even if that means shining the light of social media into every nook and cranny of their personal lives and personal space.

Here's the catch: It sticks

Here’s the problem, though: SnapChat isn’t really ephemeral—and the likelihood that SnapChat photos will get captured and stored permanently is growing each day.

In a blog post last week, Miccah Schaffer, Snap Chat’s head of Trust & Safety clarified the company’s position on retaining data that its users share. Specifically, Schaffer revealed that SnapChat does occasionally manually retain and review unopened Snaps under certain circumstances. What are those? For one, when the company is ordered by law enforcement to do so pursuant to a search warrant for the contents of Snaps. Schaffer acknowledged that SnapChat has received “about a dozen “ such warrants in the last five months that have resulted in unopened Snaps being turned over to law enforcement.

Beyond that, SnapChat may also retain opened Snaps for a time, contrary to its stated policy of deleting them once they have been opened. Again—this is only under special circumstances “like when law enforcement is determining whether to issue a search warrant for Snaps.”

That kind of legal small print on SnapChat’s terms of service shouldn’t really surprise anyone. The company has always acknowledged that it can’t prevent your SnapChat correspondents from taking a screen shot of the image you send—or pointing a camera at their phone. And the company has tried to compensate for those limitations. Screenshots, for example, are noted by the SnapChat application and reported to the sender.

The bigger threat to SnapChat and its users, though, may come from third-party platforms and applications, which can easily undermine the privacy protections that are seemingly built into the platform. Early releases of Apple’s iOS operating system changed the way in which screen shots could be taken, making it impossible for the SnapChat application to detect when screenshots of SnapChat images were captured.

New app saves Snaps

Also this week came news of a new application, SnapHack Pro, for sale on the iOS App Store. It allows users to log in using their SnapChat credentials and send and receive Snaps. The difference: all images opened and viewed in SnapHack are permanent.

SnapHack, developed by a UK programmer named Darren Jones, was the top-selling mobile application on the UK edition of Apple’s AppStore, though—an indication of the appetite for ways to circumvent the implied “privacy” of SnapChat’s service.

What does this mean for all of us? As the recent revelations about the NSA’s PRISM Program have shown, claims to online anonymity and privacy are falling left and right.

The only way to win, then, is “not to play” (to quote WOPR, the infamous super computer from the movie War Games). Alas, the trend lines point the other way. Data released by Microsoft this week finds that parents are keeping only loose reigns—at best—on their children when it comes to social media.

According to Redmond’s numbers, almost one in five parents with children under the age of 7 allow their children to have unsupervised access to smart phones. Forty percent of parents with children that age allow unsupervised access to computers.

While that's great for their computer literacy, the dark clouds over SnapChat suggest that it probably isn't going to be good news for their privacy in the years ahead!

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