Snapchat Still May Not Be as Safe as You Think

When the feds come sniffing around, the app maker won’t necessarily tell you about it.

Snapchat amd <a href="http://www.shutterstock.com/pic-245505340/stock-vector-binoculars-icon.html?src=dt_last_search-2">T-Cot</a>/Shutterstock


Snapchat is supposed to have figured out how to live up to its hype. Last year the app for sending “disappearing” photos and messages made sweeping changes in response to a Federal Trade Commission complaint that it had lost user data to hackers, oversold its content’s “disappearing” qualities, and violated its own privacy policy. But it seems Snapchat may not be as secure as its 30 million active users imagine. According to a report released last week by the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), the company, unlike most of its peers, does not promise to notify users when the federal government requests data on them.

Those requests are not uncommon. Over six months, according to Snapchat’s first transparency report, published in April, it received 375 criminal legal requests for the United States. It complied 92 percent of the time—a rate higher than Yahoo, Twitter, Facebook, and Google. (Snapchat did not respond to specific questions I sent through its channel for media queries.)

“We use Snapchat for the types of things that we would not want to see, for example, on a LinkedIn profile.”

What could the government possibly hope to get from an app that quickly deletes all of its content? A lot, it turns out. In addition to address book contacts, usernames, and phone numbers, Snapchat retains, for up to 30 days, content that hasn’t yet been read by the intended recipients. That gives investigators plenty of time to obtain a warrant and start digging. They can also serve Snapchat with a preservation order, forcing it to maintain the data. And because Snapchat doesn’t promise to alert users to government requests, the feds may be able to tap into Snapchat feeds undetected.

To be fair, Snapchat has improved markedly since EFF’s last report, in 2014, in which it earned one out of six possible stars. This year’s report looked at five categories, including the use of industry best practices, data-retention transparency, and support for user-friendly public policies. Snapchat’s four-out-of-five score beat that of messaging competitors WhatsApp and Google, but the EFF gave five stars to Adobe, Apple, Credo Mobile, Dropbox, Sonic, Wikimedia, WordPress, Yahoo, and others.

A company whose raison d’être is privacy and security ought to have a perfect score, says Rainey Reitman, a co-author of the report. “We use Snapchat for the types of things that we would not want to see, for example, on a LinkedIn profile,” she notes. “So I do think there are expectations that Snapchat will have the best security and privacy possible. I expect them to be a leader on these types of issues.”

DOES IT FEEL LIKE POLITICS IS AT A BREAKING POINT?

Headshot of Editor in Chief of Mother Jones, Clara Jeffery

It sure feels that way to me, and here at Mother Jones, we’ve been thinking a lot about what journalism needs to do differently, and how we can have the biggest impact.

We kept coming back to one word: corruption. Democracy and the rule of law being undermined by those with wealth and power for their own gain. So we're launching an ambitious Mother Jones Corruption Project to do deep, time-intensive reporting on systemic corruption, and asking the MoJo community to help crowdfund it.

We aim to hire, build a team, and give them the time and space needed to understand how we got here and how we might get out. We want to dig into the forces and decisions that have allowed massive conflicts of interest, influence peddling, and win-at-all-costs politics to flourish.

It's unlike anything we've done, and we have seed funding to get started, but we're looking to raise $500,000 from readers by July when we'll be making key budgeting decisions—and the more resources we have by then, the deeper we can dig. If our plan sounds good to you, please help kickstart it with a tax-deductible donation today.

Thanks for reading—whether or not you can pitch in today, or ever, I'm glad you're with us.

Signed by Clara Jeffery

Clara Jeffery, Editor-in-Chief

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our newsletters

Subscribe and we'll send Mother Jones straight to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate

Share your feedback: We’re planning to launch a new version of the comments section. Help us test it.