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19 July 2013updated 22 Oct 2020 3:55pm

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?

By Bithia Large

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’.” 

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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.

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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.