When the social media site Snapchat first appeared on the internet, it didn’t take long for its built-in appeal to become obvious to its hordes of mostly younger users. In essence, Snapchat worked by letting users send a “snap,” which was a message, video, or image that would completely disappear after a matter of seconds. Even the site’s developers have admitted that the appeal of the platform was its ability to let users send compromising content to their friends while enjoying the safety of knowing that the content couldn’t be stored or shared. This made the site an overnight success in terms of the increasingly popular practice of “sexting,” or sending nude images or suggestive texts to someone, knowing that the recipient couldn’t use the content in a malicious way.
What could possibly go wrong, right?
First, news broke earlier this year that Snapchat’s messages don’t actually disappear, they simply “expire.” This is to say that the cell phone carriers each user signs onto can still store the content on their servers. Users are not supposed to be able to access that content, but it’s far from gone. In fact, the platform settled in an agreement (pdf document) with the Federal Trade Commission over the site’s misrepresentation to users about the security of their content and the gathering of their personal data in user profiles.
But like an eerily similar hacking event akin to the celebrity nude photo leak that appeared on 4chan recently, a hacker recently accessed the stored content of an estimated 200,000 Snapchat users and announced the leak of as much as 13GB’s worth of pictures that users had sent through the platform. In an event being dubbed The Snappening, the hacker also claims that he’s produced a database of the images that will make them searchable and will link back to users’ identifying information.
Snapchat has insisted its website has not been hacked, but that isn’t the issue here. The problem is the use of third-party apps—which is a direct violation of Snapchat’s terms of service—that let users snag images and content and save it. One of these third-party apps, Snapsaved, has apparently been hacked and is the source of the illegally accessed content. Snapsaved has already issued a statement confirming the breach, but denies that the hacker should have been able to access the users’ personal information to create his database.
Given Snapchat’s popularity with young people and its reputation for being a discreet way to send nude and sexually suggestive images, it’s entirely possible that this breach and leak will result in child pornography charges, if the authorities can uncover and locate the hacker. Unfortunately, given the fact that 4chan operates as a no-rules, anonymous forum for this kind of activity, it’s equally likely that the culprit won’t be apprehended anytime soon, if ever.
The take away from this event is that internet users—even those so-called digital natives who have never lived in a world where the internet didn’t exist—have to get smarter about understanding how online behaviors actually impact the users, and need to remember the old maxim that nothing ever disappears from the internet. When the FTC took action against Snapchat for openly misrepresenting the functionality of the site, that should have been enough of a warning that the purpose of the site was not to be trusted to operate the way it claims, and hopefully this recent event will secure that in users’ minds.