Feds Charge Snapchat: Pics Don’t Always Disappear

The mobile messaging app settles charges with the FTC.

The logo of mobile app 'Snapchat' is displayed on a tablet on January 2, 2014 in Paris. Hackers broke into Snapchat, the hugely popular mobile app, accessing the phone numbers and usernames of 4.6 million users and publishing them online.
National Journal
Brendan Sasso
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Brendan Sasso
May 8, 2014, 9:17 a.m.

Pic­tures on the pop­u­lar mes­saging app Snapchat don’t al­ways dis­ap­pear, ac­cord­ing to fed­er­al charges filed Thursday.

Snapchat settled a law­suit with the Fed­er­al Trade Com­mis­sion over ac­cus­a­tions that it misled con­sumers about the pri­vacy of its ser­vice.

Ac­cord­ing to the gov­ern­ment, con­sumers can down­load third-party apps that al­low them to save Snapchat pic­tures and videos in­def­in­itely. The app ad­vert­ises to users that the pic­tures sent through its ser­vice “dis­ap­pear forever” a few seconds after be­ing opened.

The app also prom­ises that it will no­ti­fy users if the re­cip­i­ent of a pic­ture takes a screen­shot of it be­fore it dis­ap­pears. But ac­cord­ing to the com­plaint, any­one us­ing an Apple device with an old op­er­at­ing sys­tem can eas­ily take a screen­shot and evade no­ti­fic­a­tion.

“If a com­pany mar­kets pri­vacy and se­cur­ity as key selling points in pitch­ing its ser­vice to con­sumers, it is crit­ic­al that it keep those prom­ises,” FTC Chair­wo­man Edith Ramirez said in a state­ment. “Any com­pany that makes mis­rep­res­ent­a­tions to con­sumers about its pri­vacy and se­cur­ity prac­tices risks FTC ac­tion.”

The com­pany also settled an ar­ray of oth­er charges with the FTC. Snapchat al­legedly tracked geo­loca­tion in­form­a­tion for An­droid users des­pite prom­ising not to. The com­pany failed to prop­erly en­crypt videos and col­lec­ted in­form­a­tion from users’ ad­dress books without provid­ing prop­er no­tice, ac­cord­ing to the com­plaint.

Many con­sumers also com­plained that they had sent pic­tures to strangers, think­ing they were com­mu­nic­at­ing with friends. The FTC said Snapchat should have veri­fied phone num­bers dur­ing the re­gis­tra­tion pro­cess.

In a blog post, Snapchat ac­know­ledged that in the early days of the app, “some things didn’t get the at­ten­tion they could have.”

“Even be­fore today’s con­sent de­cree was an­nounced, we had re­solved most of those con­cerns over the past year by im­prov­ing the word­ing of our pri­vacy policy, app de­scrip­tion, and in-app just-in-time no­ti­fic­a­tions,” the com­pany said. “And we con­tin­ue to in­vest heav­ily in se­cur­ity and coun­ter­meas­ures to pre­vent ab­use.”

The set­tle­ment re­quires Snapchat to im­ple­ment a com­pre­hens­ive pri­vacy pro­tec­tion pro­gram and to sub­mit to in­de­pend­ent pri­vacy audits for the next 20 years. Fu­ture pri­vacy or se­cur­ity vi­ol­a­tions could res­ult in fines.

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