The idea of Snapchat is simple, delightfully so. Take an image or a video, send it to a friend or paramour. Ten seconds after the receiver opens the file, it self-destructs, and the sender can rest assured that no trace of the message remains. Signed, sealed, delivered, deleted.
But that’s not quite true. In December, Buzzfeed reported on a security loophole in the app, which allows one to permanently save a Snapchat file without notifying the sender. The expectation of privacy and impermanence that makes the app irresistible to young users is thus deeply flawed. And yet it remains wildly popular, ranking in February as the second-most popular free photo and video app for the iPhone, besting even Instagram.
Gary Price, author of the information industry blog INFOdocket, says Snapchat illustrates an important lesson in digital literacy: the Internet never forgets.
“If you make something available on the Web, you can never be sure it will ever be 100 percent be gone, even if you work to remove it,” Price says.
The problem, he says, is two-pronged. First, users of such services seldom take the time to understand and research their inherent risks. If they did, they’d be less likely to share material that could come back to haunt them.
Citing the motto of now-defunct clothing store Syms: “An educated consumer is our best customer,” Price says, “If you think about that in the Web age, I’m not sure that that’s really true.”
Earlier this month, the Washington, DC-based public interest research center EPIC filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission against Snapchat, for what it termed “deceptive business practices.”
The lack of transparency in how services like Snapchat function also concerns Lorenzo Franceschi-Bicchierai, a technology reporter at social media news site Mashable. “Those services where you don’t know what’s going on, you have to trust them blindly,” says Franceschi-Bicchierai, who has written extensively about online privacy. “But you should always ask yourself: Am I comfortable showing this to someone I don’t know?”
The best way to get young users thinking about the risks of sharing sensitive information online, he says, is through horror stories. “There are so many stories of kids posting something embarrassing on Facebook and then not getting accepted to college. You always think, ‘it’s not going to happen to me.’”
Gwyneth Jones, a librarian at Murray Hill Middle School library in Laurel, MD, says that she doesn’t believe in “Internet safety,” only “Internet awareness.”
The biggest privacy concerns nowadays don’t stem from strangers, says Jones, but rather from people within a child’s circle. “It could be the older brother of the kid down the street, or even a classmate, who tells a 13-year-old girl, ‘why don’t you show me a picture of your cleavage?’”
This is why, she says, education about the use of Google and social media is as essential to children as sex education. “You know they’re going to do it anyway,” says Jones. “Better to do it with knowledge, discernment and ethics.”
And parents, teachers, and librarians need to become allies in helping kids understand the risks of technologies such as Snapchat, she says, a belief echoed by Price, who says that as a parent, it’s his responsibility to understand the tools that his child is using on a daily basis.
Increased awareness, education, and transparency then, are what will allow a service like Snapchat to keep delivering value without damaging the trust naive users often put into it. After all, as computer scientist Jaron Lanier, author of You Are Not a Gadget (Random House, 2010), says, “information doesn’t deserve to be free. It is an abstract tool; a useful fantasy, a nothing. It is nonexistent until and unless a person experiences it in a useful way.”
“Sure, you’re only sharing Snapchat material with friends who also use the app,” says Price, “but sadly, your friend today might not be your friend tomorrow.”