Snapchat, and “Privacy”

Hey, look! We’re getting smarter. We now know that:

  • Texting isn’t private
  • Facebook isn’t private
  • Chatrooms aren’t private
  • Email isn’t private

Done, we’re ditching all of that racket. We need a new hangout. But we’re not ditching our devices, right?

Three can keep a secret?

Your secret is “safe” … but with whom?

I mean, life goes on. So, now, has anyone ever heard of a SmartPhone “cone of silence”? Anyone? Anyone?

Oh, yeah…. SnapChat. Perfect. Right?

Your secret is safe with me

Humor me for a moment: I’m taking you on a trip. Ready? We’ll go back to one of those old-fashioned classrooms where kids actually used pens, and wrote on paper. Enter Girlfriend and her Steady Boyfriend, both madly in love, and both bored by the political science lecture. Unlucky for them, they are on total opposite sides of the classroom. Not optimal for having a steamy convo. Who can help?

Enter: Junior Mafia Boss. This is the guy who is the size of a Buick, has smoked since the age of 5, and owns a copy of every key on the janitor’s keyring. You steer clear of him, normally. But today, he is your “friend”. He wants to go between you and BF with your handwritten love notes, for free. He will get them across the room (no, don’t you worry how he does it), and as a bonus: He will take notes back after they are viewed. If someone tries to copy them, you’ll know about it. Let loose, he says. Enjoy. You are “protected.”

Sound like a deal?

You and me make three

Three builders with a mission

It’s our little secret. All of us.

If this makes you squirm, it should. There’s an old axiom, “Three can keep a secret if two are dead.” And there’s also simple logic: Once you share a secret with someone, you’ve just given up your autonomy. Once the second person knows the story, you can both tell it on your own terms. That’s why you don’t tell secrets to just anyone, do you? Secret sharing implies trust.

So then, what if you widen the circle from you and BF, to you, BF, and “protector”? Ask yourself this: If it’s such a secret that you would only show it to BF, and then destroy it, then why on earth would you involve anybody else? In particular, why share it with someone that usually scares you? Of course, Mom schooled you on “stranger danger”. But the alternative is not talking at ALL. Other fear: What if BF drops your note on the floor and someone else grabs it? I mean, the scary guy over there said he’s all over that, watching out for anybody who wants to spy on you two.

So, you tell yourself, maybe, just maybe you could just take that great protection offer you just heard, and forget the creep behind it? Can’t you, just this once, go on and hold your nose, close your eyes, and trust your juicy secrets to one other guy?

If you have installed SnapChat on your phone, this is exactly what you have done.

Not So Temporary

Of course, the idea of digital privacy is alluring. No one wants photos of their bad haircuts living on Facebook until the sun explodes. Your friend’s handset isn’t a safe harbor, either, because you don’t control it. Better to have that message self-destruct.

So, then, let’s review what SnapChat offers you, the user:

  1. Connects you with friends (on the same service)
  2. Collects your messages – including photos
  3. Stores your messages
  4. Delivers your messages
  5. “Deletes” your messages (hides them in SnapChat)
  6. Notifies you if someone tries to save your messages

What’s missing? Where’s the guarantee that the message will self-destruct?

Oh, wait, you’re not supposed to ask that question. You’re supposed to “feel safe” and walk away, with the knowledge that someone else is tending to that. But, in case you didn’t know it already, this service must collect and store your message in order to remove from your friend’s phone. How can it hide something it isn’t keeping? And if you didn’t want your friend to keep it, why would you want an app server to keep it?

Now that SnapChat is involved in litigation, there are a few things leaking out into public information. Among them is a patent diagram. Again, humor me for a minute:snapchat patent

Excuse me, sirs, but where in the flow does the text or photo get deleted forever?  Nowhere. And, although their privacy policy is written to win your confidence, SnapChat is not really into the game of full erasure. They will only help hide you from your friends, not themselves. You are asked to agree to this, by accepting their terms of service. After that, SnapChat will store your data for as long as they want,

It’s the old slight of hand trick. SnapChat has you focused elsewhere. While you’re fussing at someone else for saving your sext, you have completely forgotten the man in the middle. Their app server is still holding onto that thing. How is this different than Junior Mafia Boss, and the Steamy Love Note Express? Anyone?

I don’t care whether it’s a gangster or a web server, there’s a third party here – a shady one – and it is hanging on to your secrets.

The Elephant in the Room

The concept of a digital “locked room” bothered me when I first heard of SnapChat. I’m sorry to hear, now, that my misgivings were so accurate.

We’ve been hedging around the topic of shady characters up to this point, so let’s just dunk it: Enter three frat “bros” from Stamford, who wanted to build an app just to encourage you to text in a “safe place.” NO, let’s get the facts straight: The “bros” wanted you to sext, in a place of perceived anonymity.

To be clear: This is a frat that was thrown off of campus, and these are college guys who authored the SnapChat app, while referring to their target demographic (white, college-aged women) as “betches.” Their own messages paint a very clear picture that SnapChat was written to encourage sexting. We know about this because their own private convos are now public, thanks to a multi-million dollar lawsuit among them.

Still think your SnapChats are private?

They don’t. They protect your pic, but what’s in it for them? Every part of you that you send to BF, in every lurid detail. And how much control do you think you have over those images? To review: Once it leaves your phone, it is no longer yours. Try getting it off of the SnapChat servers. I dare you. And what then? Let your imagination go, thinking of the things will happen to your sext after it crosses the legal threshold of SnapChat. To quote Adam McLane, it’s “Like a do-it-yourself version of Girls Gone Wild.”

Girlfriend, this app was authored to grab pictures of you in the nude. That’s all you need to know.

Don’t Play in That Neighborhood

Guys-Drinks-PhoneNow that the secrets are out, there is no longer any use pretending that SnapChat is innocent. Can you use it for innocent means? I guess so. I would say, after close examination, that it is “innocent” in the same way that opium is “medicinal.” But consider the minds that invented this concept. Do you want your details, even the innocent ones, in those hands?

Instagram might be safer, because of its more explicit privacy policy. But no social networking business is interested in keeping secrets, I don’t care what they say. Everything you send through an app is databased on the receiving servers. That means that, when the database is maintained, or backed up, so is your “private message.” When the database is recovered after an outage, guess what might come back with it? That’s assuming that it was ever deleted in the first place. Privacy policy or no privacy policy, only you can guard your own secrets.

You might be shocked to learn, also, that in this age of “privacy apps,” the most “private” way to send a text is still your handset’s SMS function. Is it truly private? No. Can the recipient keep your texts, without your permission? Yes. But for the most part, it’s just between the two of you.

How can this be?

Your cell phone company doesn’t care about your messages, that’s how. In fact, they are in a big hurry to churn your text data off of their servers, in order to make way for more data. This conversation on Verizon’s FAQ shows the phone companies’ real indifference toward received texts on their networks. You might be able to get a text transcript with a court order, within about 72 hours, but there are no guarantees. Newsflash: To your cell provider, your smart phone is nothing but a phone.

Not so, to the SnapChat “bros”. Play in their neighborhood, and you work for them.