Snapchat pivots from privacy to publicity

It has a sexting image and a privacy problem, but can the app kill two birds with one stone?

Snapchat, the mobile phone app intended for "view once" picture messaging, has developed into an $860 million company which boasts of processing approximately 200 million images per day since its creation in 2011 by a group of Stanford University students. However, recent developments mean the Snapchat team might have to slightly alter their tactics (if they can fit it in between Winklevoss twin-style lawsuits).

Originally marketed as a method of picture communication which leaves no virtual footprint, Snapchat was promoted on the basis that "snaps" vanished once viewed. The unsurprising (and perhaps intentional) consequence is that it has been widely viewed as a mechanism for teenage "sexting". 

But whereas it was initially claimed that “snaps disappear” once opened, it turns out that all the photos taken using Snapchat are cached deep in users’ Android mobile phones: Richard Hickman, a forensic researcher, developed software that enables Snapchat images to be restored. So now, in addition to every user’s pre-existing ability to screenshot snaps (the app gives the sender a warning if that's happened, but is powerless to prevent it), it appears Snapchat images are barely more secure than any of the other tracks we leave whilst living our online lives. Given second-hand sales of mobile devices, using Snapchat under the false pretence that photos are immediately deleted could have serious consequences, as images intended to be private are handed over to unknown third parties. 

The Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) recently filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission over Snapchat’s supposedly “deceptive business practices”. “Despite promising to its users that photos and videos sent via Snapchat will ‘disappear forever’,” the report stated, “Snapchat photos and videos remain available to others even after users are informed that the photos and videos have been deleted.” The EPIC complaint also detailed Snapchat’s FAQ page as stating, “Question: “Is there any way to view an image after the time has expired? Answer: No, snaps disappear after the timer runs out.”

The Snapchat team responded to protests by attempting to retract the idea that Snapchat photos are evanescent: they released a blog post which stated, “If you've ever tried to recover lost data after accidentally deleting a drive…you might know that with the right forensic tools, it's sometimes possible to retrieve data after it has been deleted. So…keep that in mind before putting any state secrets in your ‘selfies’." 

As a result of users’ gradual realisation that snaps are more permanent than initially thought, Snapchat appears to have modified its business strategy and pivoted from secrecy to sociability. For example, the recent modifications to the screenshot process for iOS 7 models mean that a notification is no longer sent at all when the recipient of a snap has taken a screenshot of an image, leaving senders unaware of who is keeping their images handy for a second-look. Unless Snapchat updates its coding to reverse this change, this seems to reinforce the idea that a pivot has occurred.

It appears, however, that Snapchat is not particularly concerned by this progression. Never content with being labelled the sexting app, the Snapchat team, which currently consists of just five people, two of whom are the co-founders Evan Spiegel and Bobby Murphy, are facing the issue of Snapchat’s dwindling ability to guarantee secure photo-messaging by shifting the spotlight to SnapChat’s potential to foster friendships. Spiegel recently commented, “We allow the Snapchat community to enforce its own norms. If you want to play a mean joke, we can’t stop you. But it’s important to look at how people build and maintain friendships. They would gain nothing in friendship by saving an ugly photo and posting it.”

Through the addition of the points system (where points are gained for numbers of snaps sent) and the "Best Friends" feature (which abandons privacy altogether in allowing users to see who their friends Snapchat the most), the Snapchat team have decidedly distanced themselves from their original concept. Though undeniably Snapchat remains a form of “disposable media” when compared with the likes of Facebook and Twitter, these changes illustrate just how difficult it is to truly erase our virtual lives and how SnapChat is gradually adapting to accept that.

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Labour should be able to find a better alternative to Corbyn than Smith

The week in the media, including Cambridge entrance exams, the Brexit tourism boom, and why Owen Smith is a no-hoper.

A woman canvassing for Jeremy Corbyn called me the other day. I explained to her that I would be voting for Owen Smith as Labour leader – as long as he seemed to have no chance of winning. She sounded bemused but, after I explained my reasoning, I think she agreed, although she may simply have decided to humour a feeble-minded eccentric.

I told her that my objection to Corbyn is not so much about his political position as about his competence as leader. If he cannot command the confidence of Labour MPs, he is unlikely to command the confidence of voters that he can run the country. However, Labour needs a more convincing alternative than Owen Smith, a soft-left figure in the mould of Neil Kinnock and Ed Miliband, who lost three general elections between them. As his proposal that we should sit down and talk to Islamic State suggests, his ear for politics, like that of the incumbent leader, appears to be manufactured from tin. Moreover, his past as a lobbyist for a drugs company represents precisely the bundle of connections between politics, media and international capital against which so many voters are in revolt.

Smith deserves a large vote, mainly to give heart to future challengers. But – given that no party has ever overthrown two leaders in a single parliament without either having fought a general election – his victory would leave the party with the prospect of nearly four wasted years followed by defeat in 2020. Labour should be able to find a better alternative to Corbyn. There is still time for him (or preferably her) to emerge.

Agent Choudary

It is widely believed in the Muslim community that the Islamist preacher Anjem Choudary is an MI5 agent, whose high-profile flamboyance was used to attract and flush out the most dangerous radicals. Those who subscribe to this theory are not fazed by his conviction at the Old Bailey on terrorism-related charges. Although the prosecution detailed numerous instances in which people allegedly linked to him were convicted of planning violent attacks, nearly all such attacks failed, according to the theory, because Choudary did his job, allowing plotters to be apprehended before they could strike. Now MI5 has decided that he should continue his work in prisons, which are said to be increasingly potent sources of radicalisation.
I hesitate to scoff too much. Who would have thought that the Soviet security services could recruit several former public school boys in the 1930s and plant them in positions at the top of MI6 and the Foreign Office? We should not assume that our spymasters are incapable of being equally clever. Besides, the MI5 agent theory probably does Choudary far more damage among young Muslims than the media’s standard portrayal of him as an evil genius.

Apt pupils

A new hurdle, in the form of a university-wide exam to test “aptitude”, will confront applicants to Cambridge from this autumn. It illustrates why state schools can never hope to catch up, still less overtake, fee-charging schools in the race for elite university places (another manifestation of what the NS calls “the 7 per cent problem”).
Unlike its predecessor, which was abolished three decades ago because it was thought to favour those from privileged backgrounds, the new entrance exam, Cambridge argues, does not require coaching. The publication of sample questions shows that this is not true. Several are, in essence, exercises in logic, which comes naturally to a tiny minority but not to the majority who will need, if nothing else, a great deal of practice to achieve competence even at an elementary level. The better fee-charging schools will organise the necessary preparation for the dozen or so candidates each year who try to get into Cambridge. Comprehensives, with far more modest resources, will not do so for the one or two candidates they are likely to have even in a good year. Their teachers’ inferior knowledge of how the exam will be marked and what tutors will be looking for – matters on which Cambridge is unhelpfully vague – will further disadvantage state school candidates.

Stashing cash

I cannot think of a better example of what crazy times we live in than this. Keeping cash under the mattress used to be something that criminals and mentally impaired old folk did. Now, the Financial Times reports, banks and other financial institutions are thinking of doing it, although they will use vaults rather than mattresses. This is because interest rates are moving into negative territory, so private-sector banks are, in effect, charged for keeping cash in their central bank accounts. The FT estimates that banks have lost €2.64bn since European Central Bank rates became negative in 2014. Some pension funds have already asked their banks for wads of cash in €500 notes.
Could any satirist or futuristic novelist have envisaged this?

Foreign throngs

The Brexit vote and the subsequent fall in sterling’s value has led, it is reported, to a sharp increase in tourism. I thought of this as we struggled through people crammed into the excellent Brontë Parsonage Museum in Haworth, West Yorkshire, the other day. Haworth is a tiny village (population 6,379) that was so poor two centuries ago that raw sewage ran down the main street. Now, it has created a flourishing industry from being the place where the Brontës’ novels were written. 

The prospects for British manufacturing and financial services may be uncertain but there’s always tourism, for which we seem to have an absolute gift. Even the damp, cold climate is an advantage, because it forces more people into the shops. But I wonder what the Brexiteers think of this growth in the number of foreigners, possibly including terrorist sympathisers, now walking our streets and thronging our museums, royal palaces and country houses. 

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser