The reported leak of thousands of pictures and videos from Snapchat is surely an embarrassment for the messaging service coming on the heels of news of its $10 billion valuation and decision to begin running advertising soon. But it's hardly the first time that security and privacy concerns have been raised around its signature feature of disappearing messages.
Snapchat at the start of the year experienced a New Year’s Eve breach in which hackers stole 4.6 million user names and phone numbers through a security flaw in the app’s Find Friends feature. In May, the company agreed to a settlement with the Federal Trade Commission after the agency claimed Snapchat misrepresented how long messages are visible to other users.
But Yankee Group analyst Raul Castanon points out that even those following the terms could be victims if they sent snaps, knowingly or not, to someone receiving messages via the third-party service. “While its explanation of the incident might be technically correct, it is a bad sign when a company that positions itself as a secure alternative to Facebook tries to address the problem by passing the blamed to third-party apps,” he wrote in a blog post today.
Snapchat instead seems to be following in Facebook’s path by taking a cavalier approach to user privacy that’s led to both companies being forced into settlements with the FTC that will see them monitored for the next 20 years by independent auditors in connection with their privacy practices.
Snapchat’s selling point — that users can send goofy or compromising messages or images with the understanding that they will last only briefly — poses an inherent challenge to hackers, which they have gladly taken up. With the underlying premise of the app undermined by breaches, it begs the question of whether Snapchat should simply give up the concept of impermanent messaging altogether as a gimmick that proved evanescent itself.
Taking that step is unlikely, of course, since users have not bolted from the service as a result of the security issues or claims the company hasn’t been forthcoming with users about how long messages remain visible. And as long as users stick around -- and keep growing -- investors and advertisers won’t care, either. But the teenage demographic that drives Snapchat use can be fickle, and there’s no shortage of other messaging alternatives to choose from.